Friday, April 08, 2005

Facing State Protests, U.S. Offers More Flexibility on School Rules

The New York Times
April 8, 2005
Facing State Protests, U.S. Offers More Flexibility on School Rules

MOUNT VERNON, Va., April 7 - Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings offered greater flexibility to states on Thursday in meeting the requirements of the Bush administration's education reform law, calling the changes a major policy shift.

In her first national response to growing resistance among state officials to the law, known as No Child Left Behind, Ms. Spellings sought to set a new, more cooperative tone. She compared the law's tempestuous first years to those of an infant's experiencing "the terrible 2's."

"This is a new day," she said. "States that show results and follow the principles of No Child Left Behind will be eligible for new tools to help you meet the law's goals."

Although President Bush promoted the law during his re-election campaign as one of his major accomplishments, more than 30 states - including many Republican strongholds - have raised objections to it. Some argue that the federal government is not adequately financing its requirements, which include a broad expansion of standardized testing. Others object to federal intrusion into an area long considered the domain of the states.

It was unclear whether Ms. Spellings's proposals went far enough to assuage state officials' concerns, though several state superintendents expressed approval, as did both national teachers unions and several members of Congress.

But Connecticut officials, who announced earlier this week that they would sue the federal government for forcing the state to conduct more testing without providing the money to pay for it, were not impressed.

"This supposed initiative offers less than meets the eye," said Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general. "Nothing in all of today's verbiage corrects the key legal lapse: by the law's clear terms, no mandate means no mandate, if it's unfunded. Our determination to sue continues."

Ms. Spellings announced specific concessions in only one area, concerning how learning-disabled students must be tested.

Until now, the administration has allowed only 1 percent of all students, those most severely handicapped, to be given special tests; all other disabled students have been required to take the test administered to regular students. Dozens of state officials have called that policy unfair and unrealistic. On Thursday, Ms. Spellings said states would be allowed to administer alternative tests to an additional 2 percent of students.

Ms. Spellings also said the Department of Education could give some states additional flexibility, but she said they must first prove that they deserve it.

The states that may be eligible, she said, must have generally sound educational policies in place, demonstrate that student achievement is rising and follow the "basic principles of the law," which she listed as administering standardized tests every year in Grades 3 through 8, reporting test results by ethnic groups and others to make sure that all students are advancing, and working to improve teacher training and parent participation.

For states that meet those criteria, Ms. Spellings said, "it is the results that truly matter, not the bureaucratic way you get there."

That and several other of her statements brought applause from the education officials gathered here in an auditorium at George Washington's plantation.

Ms. Spellings invited all 50 state education superintendents to appear. About 15 did, as did 10 deputy superintendents, said G. Thomas Houlihan, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, an association of state superintendents that gets significant financing from the Department of Education.

"We have some members who do not like this law," Mr. Houlihan said after the speech.

"It's meant a lot of heavy lifting," he said, "but this speech has left me cautiously optimistic" about chances for improving federal-state relations.

Trent Blankenship, Wyoming's superintendent of public instruction, said: "I thought she nailed it. I'm delighted that we'll be having more flexibility if we stick to the law's principles."

Terry Bergeson, the superintendent in Washington State, said she had met repeatedly with federal officials in recent months to request changes in the testing policies for disabled students.

"We've been doing a disservice to those kids under the No Child Left Behind testing rules," Ms. Bergeson said. "So I was very excited to hear the changes."

Some education advocates worried that Secretary Spellings's offer of new flexibility to some states but not others would lead to favoritism.

"That could make the law even more subject to political manipulation than it already is," said Monty Neill, co-executive director of FairTest, a group that opposes heavy reliance on standardized testing.

Patti Harrington, the superintendent of public instruction in Utah, said she welcomed the new rules for testing disabled students. The state's Legislature passed a resolution last month protesting the federal law and is poised to vote on a bill at a special session later this month that would require Utah officials to follow state educational priorities rather than federal ones.

As for the broader promise of further flexibility, Ms. Harrington said, "I hope it's more than a speech."

"I receive these letters from the department that say, 'You must do this and this and this,' " she added. "They've got to let us do our work."

Betty J. Sternberg, the education commissioner in Connecticut, did not attend the speech. In January, she sent Secretary Spellings a letter noting that Connecticut had tested elementary students effectively in alternate years for two decades and did not want to expand to every year, preferring to use the money to expand reading and other programs proven to raise achievement. Ms. Spellings denied that request and repeatedly rebuffed Dr. Sternberg's requests for a meeting.

Dr. Sternberg said by phone from Connecticut on Thursday that she had considered attending the secretary's speech.

"I would have gone," she said, "had I thought that I would be able to sit down with her, because I'd like to work out our differences in a conference room, not in a courtroom."

Ms. Spellings left the auditorium immediately after her speech without taking questions. Dr. Sternberg, who downloaded the speech from the Internet, pointed to one of the secretary's statements: "No Child Left Behind was designed not to dictate processes, but to promote innovation and improve results for kids."

Dr. Sternberg said, "Taking the secretary at her word about flexibility, then we would ask that the feds not dictate to us the process of giving standardized tests in every grade, and instead consider our proposal as an innovation."

"And I still would like to meet with her personally," she added.