D.C. schools won relief from the federal No Child Left Behind law, giving local campuses more time to boost math and reading performance and high-school graduation rates, officials from the U.S. Department of Education announced.
Under the waiver, the District has committed to having 74 percent of students proficient in math and 73 percent proficient in reading on standardized tests by 2017. Currently, about 45 percent of D.C. students pass muster in either subject. Had the waiver not been approved, the District would have been expected legally to bring 100 percent of students to proficiency by 2014.
The local public and charter school systems also are aiming to increase the four-year high-school graduation rate from 59 percent to 78 percent by 2017.
The District was never at risk to lose federal funding over No Child Left Behind. But D.C. state schools superintendent Hosanna Mahaley has said the city could focus more specific efforts on lowest-performing schools if it weren't forced to follow all of No Child Left Behind's procedures.
"Schools want the opportunity to innovate and develop tailored solutions to the unique educational challenges of their schools and communities, and our flexibility application will allow them to do just that," Mahaley said.
The U.S. Department of Education had expressed "significant concerns" with the District's waiver in a May letter to Mahaley from Michael Yudin, the deputy assistant secretary for policy and strategic initiatives.
Yudin said the city's poor history of accounting for federal grants, which has made the D.C. school system "a high-risk grantee," and the District's issues complying with special education laws gave his department pause.
"Clearly D.C. has come a long way since the initial submission," Yudin told reporters on a conference call Wednesday. He said his colleagues were impressed that the District had reduced the number of special-education students being sent to private schools because the public schools couldn't handle them.
The number of special-education students in private placements has dropped from 2,200 when Mayor Vincent Gray took office to about 1,700 currently.
The Washington Examiner reported Monday that parents and attorneys in the District were concerned that their children were being pushed into neighborhood schools unequipped to handle them, as D.C. seeks to save money and boost the public school system's reputation. Parents of a severely handicapped 19-year-old -- with the mental age of an 18-month-old -- say their child is being forced into Dunbar Senior High School.
A federal education official authorized only to speak on background said, "We're definitely thinking about and will continue to monitor D.C. closely."
Maryland and Virginia were previously approved for relief from No Child Left Behind, and are among the 32 states with waivers as of Thursday.