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Two GOP lawmakers ask feds to deny Minnesota's 'No Child' waiver

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Two key Republican lawmakers are asking the federal government to reject Minnesota's application for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law.

Patrick Garofalo, R-Farmington, and Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, are the two chairs of the main education committees in the Minnesota House. They say the Dayton administration is proposing changes to the state's education system in ways that don't follow current law.

Garofalo and Erickson co-signed a letter sent Tuesday to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.  "While we support the effort to seek relief under a flexibility request," the letter reads, "we must clarify that the (Minnesota Department of Education) submission or resubmission does not represent the will of the legislature nor all the stakeholders involved in the drafting of the flexibility request."

Garofalo, Erickson letter to U.S. Dept. of Education 

Erickson admitted that drafting the letter is an unorthodox move, but said she and Garofalo had to act because they felt their concerns had been largely ignored.

"We needed to have a powerful closing statement to call the attention of the secretary to the fact that there are some major weaknesses in this revision, as well as in the original application," Erickson said.

Despite widespread belief that the nation's preeminent education law - No Child Left Behind - is broken, there has been little agreement in Washington over how to fix it.  The Obama administration announced in 2011 that because Congress hadn't passed a solution, the federal education department would grant waivers to states that come up with a better system for measuring students and schools.

Minnesota is one of 11 states that applied in the first round of waiver requests. After a response from federal officials in December, state officials revised the application and resubmitted it last week.

Erickson and Garofalo's chief concern is that they believe the state's application makes proposals that the Department of Education is not authorized or given power by lawmakers to do.

"The bureaucracy doesn't like state law, so they're going to the federal government to invalidate that, and they can't do that," Garofalo said.

An example is proficiency: The current No Child law requires schools to be judged strongly by just students' proficiency — whether students read and perform math at grade level.

Instead, the state proposes to use four measurements: proficiency; student growth; the size of a school's achievement gap; and a high school's graduation rate.

All four measurements would be weighed equally, which Erickson believes is against state law. She says current law requires proficiency to carry more weight.

"It should have had a higher ranking, a greater percentage, in other words — 35, 40, 45, even 50 percent," Erickson said. "Because that is the goal and that can't be deviated from unless we change state law and we're not going to do that."

On that point, state department spokesman Keith Hovis called the issue a 'philosophical difference' — the fact that Minnesota asks for equal weight among the four measurements is the result of input from stakeholders across the state.

"We feel it is essential that they are weighted equally," Hovis said.

Hovis rejected the notion that Commissioner Brenda Cassellius was overstepping her power. He said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan had given state commissioners the authority to apply for these waivers, and that Cassellius was acting on an order from Gov. Mark Dayton to apply.

"The department has been nothing but all-inclusive in terms of bringing everybody around the table, and this is not outside the realm of her duties," Hovis said.

Hovis added that Cassellius has met publicly around the state, as well as in stakeholder meetings, to gather input. The issues to which Garofalo and Erickson are calling the federal government's attention have been raised to state officials, and Hovis says the state department responded to the lawmakers' request for clarification.

It is unclear whether the lawmakers' letter will affect the federal department's decision to grant Minnesota's waiver request, and Hovis does not believe it will.

"We are confident that we will be able to address any concerns this letter might raise, both with representatives Erickson and Garofalo, as well as the Department of Education," Hovis said. "We're still confident that we are very well positioned to get this waiver."

A federal department spokesman didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. A decision on Minnesota's request and that of 10 other states is expected in the next few weeks.