It turns out that the U.S. Department of Education has quite a few issues with the District’s application for relief from No Child Left Behind. The problems start with two chronic concerns: The city’s poor record of handling and accounting for federal grants, and its difficulties staying in compliance with special education laws. Both were inherited by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education when it was formed in 2007, but they remain obstacles.

“The Department is concerned about OSSE’s status as a high-risk grantee,” said the April 17 letter to D.C. State Superintendent Hosanna Mahaley from Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary Michael Yudin, which the District kept under wraps until Thursday evening. Yudin also cited what he called the District’s “sustained non-compliance with Individuals with Disabilities Act” (IDEA).

Federal officials want to hear more about how OSSE will hold the city’s 53 public charter schools accountable--especially low performers-- since they operate with considerable autonomy. Mahaley said OSSE’s issues were unique from other state education agencies because of the city’s heavy concentration of charter schools. She said that OSSE and the D.C. Public Charter School Board need to work out decisions on which agency is best suited to support academically struggling charters.

The Education Department is offering “flexibility” from NCLB’s focus on absolute test scores and its mandate for students to achieve 100 percent reading and math proficiency by 2014. States that propose their own tough accountability plans can get some regulatory relief. Without a waiver, however, nearly all of the District's 187 eligible public and public charter schools would be considered ”failing” in two years.

OSSE officials have proposed a system that emphasizes growth in test scores over annual results and an intensive effort to overhaul the lowest-performing schools in the city. It wants to give parents a more meaningful set of measurements to determine progress of students and schools, including rates of ninth grade completion, and high school and college graduation.

Mahaley said she was surprised by the Education Department’s references to grant and special education issues. She said OSSE’s last three quarterly reports to the federal agency have included no “open issues” surrounding grants, and that discussions were underway on the District’s removal from high-risk status. As for special education, she cited the District’s exit from the “Blackman” segment of the Blackman-Jones class-action lawsuit.

Mahaley said discussions with the department would continue and a revised application will be filed by May 30.