The U.S. Department of Education (ED) will allow Chicago Public Schools to tutor struggling students even though the district itself has not met academic standards–a waiver of federal rules that could have national implications.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced the change Sept. 1 in Chicago, marking the second time in a week she has shown flexibility in how she enforces President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law.

In the other case, four Virginia school districts have been allowed to offer tutoring before they are required to offer transfers to students in struggling schools, the first time the department has allowed that sequence to be reversed.

Depending on how Spellings defines these pilot projects, other districts might get the chance to apply for the same flexibility–or they might have to wait and see.

For months, state education officials have been looking for signs on how Spellings would deliver on her promise to be more reasonable in enforcing the law if states show rising achievement.

Under federal rules, school districts that fail to show enough yearly progress in reading and math for two straight years cannot provide tutoring. That restriction is designed to protect poor students from having to rely on the same schools that might not be serving them well when tapping into the law’s promise of free tutoring.

But urban districts such as Chicago say the rule is unfair because their test scores in two subjects might have little to do with their ability to provide extra help. What’s more, the large districts argue, the rule could keep children from getting help if other tutors aren’t available.

Chicago, one of the largest school systems in the nation, also has had one of the most expansive tutoring programs. Federal officials previously had ordered Chicago to stop providing tutoring under the law or risk losing federal money. (See story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5476.)

Michael Petrilli, a former senior aide at ED who is now vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an education think tank, said the Bush administration had avoided issuing waivers to the law at all costs. Not anymore.

“The secretary is showing her willingness to use waivers to provide flexibility,” Petrilli said. He added: “I can’t imagine that other districts would not be eligible for this. I don’t think they could justify keeping it to these few places.”