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Oklahoma officials: Feds restore education waiver, state's flexibility in using $29M

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OKLAHOMA CITY — The federal government has restored Oklahoma's flexibility to decide how to use $29 million in public school funding, state officials said Monday.

The U.S. Department of Education had withdrawn Oklahoma's waiver from portions of the No Child Left Behind Act in August, after legislators dropped Common Core guidelines that would have been in place for the current school year. Replacement guidelines — the ones in place before Common Core — weren't certified until October as being capable of making high school graduates ready for college or the workplace.

"The Oklahoma State Department of Education asked for reinstatement of the waiver in October and received notification today that it will be reinstated for the current school year," the state Board of Education said in a statement Monday.

Oklahoma Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi said reinstatement "will provide a little bit more stability and predictability" for the state's more than 500 public school districts.

Reinstatement was announced in a letter from U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Deborah S. Delisle, who said that her decision was based on the replacement standards being rated "college and career ready." She also said it was based on a determination that flexibility in spending federal dollars had allowed state education officials "to carry out important reforms to improve student achievement."

"I am confident that Oklahoma will continue to implement the reforms described in its ... flexibility request and advance its efforts to hold schools and school districts accountable for the achievement of all students," Delisle wrote.

In their request, state education officials said the state's school improvement program had led to significant progress. Officials said 51 out of 175 priority schools had improved their letter grade this school year, and more than 100 schools targeted for intervention had raised their grade. Priority and targeted intervention schools are schools that need the most intensive help in raising student achievement.

"They were very impressed with the work we were doing around school turnaround and the very impressive gains these districts were making," Barresi said.

Assistant state Superintendent Richard Caram said the school improvement program helps teachers improve how they deliver instruction in the classroom.

Barresi said that losing the waiver threatened many schools across Oklahoma with increased burdensome federal regulation. The state has 681,000 public school students.

"The ramifications of losing the waiver would have been significant and with potentially disastrous consequences," Barresi said. "Instead, Oklahoma now has an opportunity to build upon the innovations and successful reforms of recent years."

Gov. Mary Fallin has asked education leaders to develop new guidelines by 2016 to replace the recently re-adopted Priority Academic Student Skills, or PASS, education standards.

Conservative groups have complained that Common Core standards for math and English, which have been adopted by more than 40 states, were an attempt by the federal government to control state education standards. Barresi and Fallin were among early supporters of the Common Core standards.

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