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Spellings in Alabama, announces plan for reading program increase

". . . not theory or philosophical things. . . . "


Another round of "Do anything you want to us, just so long as you keep giving us money."

By Desiree Hunter, The Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) ΓΆ€” Educators, legislators and state officials met with U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings Friday for a round-table discussion about No Child Left Behind that was at turns critical and complimentary, but always candid.

"I thought it was stimulating conversation. I think it was straight from the heart and from professional people who are in education every day," state Superintendent of Education Joe Morton said after the Montgomery meeting.

"I think it gives (Spellings) some concrete, hands-on things that can be done to improve the law ΓΆ€” not theory or philosophical things ΓΆ€” but productive and constructive (input)," he said.

Spellings' visit was one of several stops she is making throughout the country to discuss the successes and shortcomings of the federal act that was passed in 2002 and has been unpopular with many public school teachers.

She said there have been a lot of common threads in her conversations with educators around the country, with some of the key issues involving the way students are tracked, supplemental services that are offered and changing what now amounts to a pass/fail system for schools.

But despite all the improvements that need to be made, Spellings said, the law has produced some positive results.

"There's a focus on every kid and every group of students so we're no longer content with: 'Average everybody's achievement together and say 'Hooray for us'," she said. "We are going to look at every kid ΓΆ€” every group of Hispanic kids, African-American kids, special ed kids, and we're going to hold them all to a high standard and that's proficiency by 2014."

Rhonda Neal Waltman, who was the assistant superintendent of Mobile schools when the law went into effect, said the positives outweigh the bad.

"I do think it was a catalyst for change for us," said Waltman, who attended the round-table and shared about her experiences. "A disadvantage of it is we had focused a lot on testing before we realized if we focus on rigorous curriculum the tests will take care of themselves.

"Do we need to tweak it? Absolutely. Does it need more funding? Absolutely. But don't throw it away," she said.

Spellings also announced President Bush's plans to ask Congress to raise funding for the nationwide Reading First program to at least $1 billion when he makes his budget request for fiscal year 2009 on Monday.

The program serves low-income children and saw its budget slashed by 60 percent to $393 million in the current fiscal year. An Education Department inspector general's report last year showed mismanagement and conflicts of interest in the program in its early years.

Chad Colby, a spokesman for Spellings, said the secretary has accepted and implemented the inspector general's recommendations and the problems have been fixed.

"Everybody that was involved in implementation is no longer with the department," he said.

"Our position has always been: Don't throw the baby out with the bath water," Colby said. "You've got an effective program that is helping. You shouldn't throw away a federal program because of early management problems with implementation."

Morton agreed, saying the federal cuts to the program ΓΆ€” which amount to about $10 million for Alabama ΓΆ€” would be especially dire now with millions in state cuts looming.

"People are devastated, truly devastated with the cut. You could hear it in their voices today," he said. "I'm hopeful that it's a one year cut. ... I hope it's rectified when they adopt the next budget."

— Desiree Hunter, The Associated Press


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