AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine is in danger of losing an important federal waiver that could have ramifications on funding for the state’s public schools unless the Legislature changes the way teachers and principals are evaluated before March 15, according to the Maine Department of Education.

At issue is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which traces to the President George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act in its quest to ensure that all public schools continue to improve. The ESEA waiver, first granted to Maine in 2013, excuses Maine from bringing 100 percent of public school students to proficiency in math and reading. The original deadline to meet that goal was 2014.

Maine’s existing waiver ends later this year and the state is due to apply for a renewal in the coming months. Maine Department of Education spokeswoman Samantha Warren said the most serious issue is the U.S. Department of Education’s requirement that student learning and growth measures — i.e., standardized test scores — be a significant factor in measuring the effectiveness of an educator.

Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley said in a written statement that it is working to “clarify the components of the law.”

Maine passed a law in 2013 making way for an educator evaluation system and is in the midst of implementing it this year. The law calls for educator evaluation systems to be designed and implemented at the local level. If local boards are not able to reach consensus, the law calls for student test scores to comprise 20 percent of an educators’ evaluations.

One problem the federal government has with that system is it does not require that the state’s official student assessments — which until this year were the NECAP and SAT tests but which have been replaced by the Maine Educational Assessment in math and language arts — be used.

“Since the letter arrived last month, we’ve had multiple calls with the feds to hone our understanding of their expectations of us and next steps,” Warren wrote in response to questions from the BDN. “It is clear to us from those conversations that if Maine does not move quickly in updating its rules to require that the state assessment be a component of both teacher and principal evaluations, our existing waiver will be revoked.”

Warren said the DOE is planning to submit a bill to the Legislature in the coming weeks that if passed would satisfy this requirement by the federal government. Kilby-Chesley said the existing law was carefully considered.

“In this law there is no prohibition against students’ standardized tests being used as one part of student learning and growth measurements that federal waiver says must be a ‘significant factor’ of evaluation,” said Kilby-Chesley. “Maine legislators saw the importance of the final decision of how much tests would count in an individual teacher’s evaluation, being made locally so the system would be aligned with the local needs of students. … In the coming days MEA will be clarifying the components of the law and our ability to create a locally controlled education evaluation system for the benefit of the teachers and students in the state of Maine.”

If Maine does not renew its waiver, any school where students don’t attain 100 percent proficiency — which would be virtually every school in Maine — would be labeled as failing and would be subject to new restrictions about how they use federal Title 1 funding.

Title 1 funding, which is meant to support schools whose communities fall below certain socioeconomic guidelines, brings approximately $48 million a year to Maine.

According to a Dec. 19 letter from the U.S. Department of Education, which test Maine uses was one of several areas of concern. Most of the others were also related to teacher and principal evaluations.

Also flagged in a preliminary review of Maine’s application was how Maine will ensure continued improvement of educators, how individual education plans for students will be used to measure student growth, how struggling educators will be provided “timely and meaningful feedback” and how the state will ensure that evaluation systems are uniform in their rigor across the state.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.