Oakland and eight other school districts are asking the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver of tough school standards in order to pursue alternative performance measures that could return millions of dollars in federal funds back to local control.

Superintendents of Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Fresno, Sacramento, Santa Ana, Sanger and Clovis unified school districts announced Thursday they are seeking their own waiver from No Child Left Behind requirements after the federal government rejected an application for exemption by the state of California last year. The nine districts, which represent more than 1 million students, would receive $110 million in federal funding that is currently being withheld.

The superintendents want a broader measure of school performance that does not rely as heavily on test scores and includes broader criteria such as parent engagement and satisfaction, suspensions, conflict resolution strategies, chronic absenteeism and graduation rates.

Their proposal substitutes assistance from successful districts for sanctions for underperformers.

"We have very different language around social-emotional learning than other districts," Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Tony Smith said Thursday.

But the rest of the state would be invited to join the original nine districts, which banded together as the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, if the application is approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

No Child Left Behind requires all students to be working at grade level in math and English by 2014. School districts that don't meet annual targets toward that goal are identified as "failing" and are required to spend money and make specific changes based on rigid rules spelled out in the law.

California is one of 44 states that submitted waivers requests, and 34 have been approved so far.

California's application was denied because it did not meet the criteria required to receive flexibility, which include evaluating teachers and principals based in part on student achievement.

Subsequently, the U.S. Department of Education invited individual districts or groups to submit waiver requests to receive flexibility for their schools.

The CORE proposal will initially go to the state Department of Education, which can comment on the proposal but lacks the authority to reject it outright. CORE expects to receive suggestions from the federal Department of Education by mid-April and complete the final version by June.

The new criteria could be in place by the beginning of the 2013-14 school year.

The superintendents admitted the timeline is ambitious but said they are confident of approval.

"This is so aligned with their thinking," Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy said.