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Connecticut Governor Aides Set for Talks on Federal School Bill

Seeking to avoid confrontation and the possibility that Connecticut will be the lead challenger to President Bush's signature education bill, Gov. M. Jodi Rell has brokered a meeting for Monday in Washington between her administration and top officials of the federal Department of Education.

Ms. Rell, a Republican, interceded in a dispute that has grown increasingly heated between Connecticut's education department and the Republican administration in Washington over implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act.

"It is time to ratchet down the rhetoric and address the real issues that face Connecticut and other states," Governor Rell said in a statement released late yesterday. "Our state officials will discuss flexibility and funding concerns about the No Child Left Behind Act. I hope the meeting will produce positive results."

Connecticut has been one of several states chafing at parts of the 2001 act that they find onerous, and state officials had been unable to secure a face-to-face meeting with Margaret Spellings, the secretary of the United States Department of Education, to discuss their concerns.

High on their list of grievances is the mandate, taking effect in the next school year that requires states to test their students' proficiency each year. Right now, Connecticut administers statewide proficiency tests every other year.

Connecticut's education department, led by Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg, has argued that the money would be better spent in the classroom than on tests. But Ms. Spellings has refused to budge, calling the annual tests a core principle of the act.

Last week, the Connecticut attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, announced that he intended to sue the federal government to stop the additional testing on the grounds that the law in question explicitly forbids Washington to impose mandates on state and local entities that it does not finance. He urged other states to join in the suit, but so far none have committed.

Meanwhile, state and federal officials have been engaged in a bitter tit-for-tat in letters, editorials and television interviews, creating their own version of a schoolyard brawl.

The rift grew last week when Ms. Spellings, asked about Connecticut during a television appearance, said it was "un-American, I would call it, for us to take the attitude that African-American children in Connecticut living in inner cities are not going to be able to compete, are not going to be prepared to compete in this world and are not going to be educated to high levels. That's the notion, the soft bigotry of low expectations, as the president calls it, that No Child Left Behind rejects."

Ms. Sternberg wrote to Ms. Spellings, demanding an apology.

"Are we back in the McCarthy era?" Ms. Sternberg asked in an interview. "Are we un-American because we're asking for a waiver?"

A spokeswoman for Ms. Spellings, Susan Aspey, said her office had just received the letter and was preparing a response.

Mrs. Rell's managerial style has always leaned more toward schoolmarm diplomacy than to antagonism or bullying. Late yesterday, her office announced that she had stepped in to put an end to the dispute and had appealed to officials in the White House and to Ms. Spellings.

Hearing of the change, Mr. Blumenthal said that he would await the results of Monday's meeting before filing a lawsuit, but that he was still prepared to move forward with it.

Representing Connecticut at the meeting will be Ms. Sternberg; the State Board of Education chairman, Allan Taylor; and Connecticut's Department of Education attorney, Mark Stapleton.

Ms. Aspey noted that Ms. Spellings had "invited" Ms. Sternberg to meet with her, and that her subordinates had met with Connecticut officials as recently as last month.

"We've had an ongoing dialogue with the state to help them on the law's implementation, and the secretary's upcoming meeting is a continuation of that," Ms. Aspey said.

A cost analysis prepared by the state's education department projects that by 2008 Connecticut will have shouldered $41 million in unreimbursed obligations because of the new law, and that additional assessments in grades 3, 5 and 7 will cost $8 million more than what Washington is expected to pay.

Ms. Spellings has called those estimates "off the mark."

— Alison Leigh Cowan
New York Times
2005-04-14
http://query.nytimes.com/mem/tnt.html?emc=tnt&tntget=2005/04/14/nyregion/14rell.html&tntemail0


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