— The federal Education Department has approved Superintendent Mick Zais’ plan for evaluating teachers and principals in South Carolina, handing a blow to educator groups that had offered their own plan.

Zais spokesman Jay Ragley on Tuesday called the validation from the Democratic administration a significant achievement that should put to rest partisan fears.

“Having an independent, non-South Carolina-based, even Democratic administration say this plan can work and is a valid plan is something everyone in South Carolina should look at,” Ragley said. “Using student learning as part of evaluations is not a partisan issue.”

But advocates for teachers and principals continue to blast the state agency’s plan as invalid and unreliable.

They’ll continue to make their case to the state Board of Education, which must approve the details before they’re implemented statewide in 2014.

Evaluating educators based on performance is a required part of the state’s exemption from the all-or-nothing provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law. States granted the waivers are exempt from requirements that all students score proficient on state-standardized math and reading tests by 2014.

The U.S. Education Department approved South Carolina’s request for flexibility in July. It recently OK’d the state’s specific plan for evaluations.

The approved guidelines “reaffirm South Carolina’s commitment to improving academic achievement and the quality of instruction for all of the state’s elementary and secondary school students,” assistant secretary Deborah Delisle wrote in a letter received Feb. 27.

Roger Smith of the South Carolina Education Association called the federal thumbs-up frustrating.

Both state and federal agencies “totally ignored the education community’s alternative plan,” said Debbie Elmore with the state School Boards Association.

The key differences in Zais’ plan and educators’ alternative — presented to the board last November — are not using letter grades and the way student growth is measured. Educators oppose receiving performance evaluations on an A to F scale, saying that’s degrading, and what they call an overreliance on test scores.

Many are especially concerned about part of their evaluation coming from the performance of their entire school.

In December, the state board agreed with the advocates, voting 11-3 on a resolution supporting their efforts and criticizing Zais’ plan as not providing “valid, reliable or meaningful data on teacher or principal performance.” Zais dismissed it as a nonbinding, unenforceable show of support for special interest groups.

The vote signified a return to the board’s contentious relationship with the Republican superintendent, who contends he answers to voters, not board members.

Elmore said both the alternative plan and resolution were sent to the federal agency.

State board Chairman David Blackmon, who voted for the resolution, said the federal government’s approval doesn’t change anything.

“We’ll just wait patiently,” he said. “We’ll wait until the data is presented and the agency comes forward with a well-thought-out and represented plan.”

Zais’ plan is being preliminarily tested in 22 schools this year. He has said feedback will help develop a pilot program to be used in eight to 25 volunteering school districts next school year.

Zais asked superintendents in a letter Tuesday to participate in the pilot, saying that’s the best way to get involved in the decision-making process.

But education advocates suspect getting volunteers will be difficult.

“It is unclear what school districts are walking into if they participate,” Elmore said.

South Carolina is among 15 states and the District of Columbia to receive approval letters so far for their plans to evaluate teachers and principals, according to the federal education agency.

The other states are Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.

The federal agency will continue to monitor South Carolina’s process. Any changes to the plan may need to be resubmitted for federal review, Delisle said.