New U.S. Secretary Showing Flexibility on 'No Child' Act
Ohanian Comment: Don't get your hopes up. . . or catch your chickens before the proverbial hatching.
WASHINGTON-- Less than a month after taking office, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has shown a willingness to work with state and local officials on what they consider to be some of the toughest requirements of President Bush's signature education law, No Child Left Behind.
In her first few days, the Education Department has ended simmering disputes with two states, in one case resolving an uproar in North Dakota by approving the qualifications of 4,000 teachers who believed federal officials had previously declared them insufficiently qualified.
In another case, Ms. Spellings said school districts need not always allow students in low-performing schools to transfer to better ones if it caused overcrowding, an issue important to New York.
"They did a complete about-face," said Senator Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, who with his state's governor had requested that the department reconsider its ruling on teacher qualifications.
Ms. Spellings, once a lobbyist with the Texas Association of School Boards, said the North Dakota dispute was based on a misunderstanding. Still, she appears to be striking a more conciliatory tone than did her predecessor, Rod Paige, whose rigid interpretation of the law led 31 state legislatures last year to offer an array of challenges to it.
But Ms. Spellings said she would not be a pushover.
"I'm not necessarily going to always grant their requests," she said, especially when states ask for waivers from the law's central provision, that all children take standardized tests in grades three to eight and once in high school, as has been done by Connecticut and several other states. "I mean, we'd have everybody down here."
The 670-page law that Mr. Bush signed in January 2002, which holds schools accountable for student scores on standardized tests, is forcing schools to accept broad changes or lose critical federal money.
Corporate leaders have enthusiastically supported its goals, but educators and lawmakers across the nation skirmished frequently with Mr. Paige as the law extended federal influence over a sector traditionally left to states and districts.
Ms. Spellings said she intended to balance states' rights to control schools with the federal government's responsibility to reduce the achievement gap between suburban white and urban minority students.
"That's the most important thing I'm going to do, to thread the needle of that balance," she said. The president, she said, wants her to "get with the states and the Congress and work the problem."
She is already treading a line between setting a cooperative tone and keeping the lid on demands for change.
One of her first challenges will be to resolve rising tensions with Utah, the state that voted more overwhelmingly for Mr. Bush than any other but where the Republican governor and Legislature and top educators are all demanding more freedom from the federal law's dictates.
The Legislature is considering a bill that would require Utah's superintendent of public instruction to give state educational goals priority over the federal law. The superintendent, Patti Harrington, urged lawmakers to pass it. "We don't have much regard for No Child Left Behind in Utah," Ms. Harrington said in an interview. "For rigor, yes, for achievement, yes, but this law just gets in our way."
She called the law's accountability system "convoluted," its method for defining highly-qualified teachers "faulty," and its requirement that disabled children be tested at their grade level rather than at their ability level "ludicrous."
"But we have great hope with Spellings's appointment," she said. "I'm hopeful that she'll come to Utah and say, 'You've got everything in place,' and then set us a little more freedom."
Ms. Spellings said Senator Orrin G. Hatch had invited her to Utah and she expressed eagerness to visit there. "These are Republicans," she said. "These are our people."
The view that a state's accountability system is more effective than the one mandated by the federal law is an opinion shared by top educators and lawmakers in many states. Nine legislatures this year have begun considering measures challenging the law, and Scott Young, a senior policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said that number was certain to mount.
Connecticut's commissioner of education, Betty J. Sternberg, writing to Ms. Spellings last month, noted Connecticut's "effective 20-year history of testing in alternate years," and requested it be relieved of the federal requirement to test students in every grade three through eight.
Additional tests, Dr. Sternberg wrote, "will cost millions of dollars and tell us nothing that we do not already know about our students' achievement."
In the interview in her seventh-floor office at Education Department headquarters, Ms. Spellings said that she had not seen Dr. Sternberg's letter but that "there's no ability to waive the annual assessment."
"But I'll go talk to them," she said. "We're not having school up here. We're not closing the achievement gap at the Department of Education. The people in Connecticut are doing that."
Those comments seemed an expression of humility about the federal government's role in education that often appeared lacking under Ms. Spellings's predecessor.
After department officials visited North Dakota in early December, the state authorities there concluded that the federal officials had ruled some 4,000 veteran elementary teachers to be not "highly qualified" under the federal law, meaning that despite their classroom experience, they would have to take a certification test or otherwise demonstrate mastery of their subject matter.
"Our teachers were apoplectic," Senator Dorgan said. "You've taught for 15 years in your major subject, and all of a sudden you've got some bureaucrat saying you're not qualified? That's the sort of thing that makes people furious about government."
On Feb. 2, the department announced that the teachers were qualified to teach after all. Senator Dorgan said the department changed course after he told an assistant secretary of education that the previous ruling was "completely devoid of common sense" and threatened in a speech to the North Dakota legislature to seek the federal law's repeal.
Gov. John Hoeven, a Republican, said he had worked with his state's two senators and one congressman, all Democrats. "We were all pushing for the same flexibility," he said. But he said minds finally changed at the department only after he asked the White House for help.
Ms. Spellings denied that the department had reversed course. One of her aides said that North Dakota officials had spread word erroneously that the department had ruled the teachers to be insufficiently qualified. In fact, the aide said, the department's Feb. 2 ruling was its first on the matter, and thus not a reversal.
In the interview, Ms. Spellings also laid out what experts said was another policy shift, this one involving the law's school choice provisions.
During Ms. Spellings's confirmation hearing, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, noted that No Child Left Behind regulations prohibited school districts from citing lack of space as an excuse for denying student transfers, with the result that some New York schools had become overcrowded.
Ms. Spellings said in the interview that disputes between districts and the department over the law's transfer provisions had largely ended, partly because now parents in low-performing schools can request that their students receive tutoring at federal expense.
"So that's something that parents are now seeking, as opposed to the public school choice transfer," she said. If districts make a reasonable case that they lack space in high-performing schools, they need not offer transfers, she said.
"The public school choice option, because of capacity issues, has kind of been a dead letter," she said.
Jill Chaifetz, executive director of Advocates for Children, a nonprofit New York education group, said the department had not previously announced that overcrowded districts did not have to comply with the transfer provisions.
"That is a major policy shift," Ms. Chaifetz said.
Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said Ms. Spellings had not intended to articulate a change in federal policy, only to acknowledge that classroom shortages had prevented many districts from offering transfers as the law
New York Times
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