FROM ED POLICY UPDATE, ASCD
March 2005—Vol. 4, No. 2
States Weigh In on Education Reform
State legislators and governors are stepping up the dialogue around education reform. On separate occasions last month, state legislators and governors called for changes to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and rallied around the need to make high school more rigorous.
State Legislators Challenge NCLB
The National Conference of State Legislatures released a bipartisan report criticizing NCLB and asserting that states need more authority in implementing the law. Task force cochair Steve Saland, a Republican state senator from New York, said the law is excessively intrusive and has turned states that were once pioneers into prisoners by undermining their ability to innovate.
Calling for fundamental changes to the law, the report lists 43 recommendations for revising how student progress is measured, resolving conflicts between NCLB and the nation's main special education law, and granting states flexibility to address schools' and districts' unique needs and situations. Finding that there are minimal new federal resources, the report also calls for a federal study to determine the costs associated with NCLB.
Although the newly appointed Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has stressed her willingness to work with states, it remains to be seen how flexible the Department of Education will be. Reacting to the report, Ray Simon, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said "the report could be interpreted as wanting to reverse the progress we've made … We will not reverse course."
Meanwhile, however, the Department of Education is engaged in ongoing negotiations with states to shape the rules that govern the implementation of NCLB, even though it is not scheduled for reauthorization until 2007.
In Utah, state officials have halted the progress of a bill that would give the state's educational goals priority over NCLB, saying they will take more time to negotiate with the Department of Education. State leaders credit the legislation and the national attention it has garnered for increasing the federal government's willingness to listen to them.
Texas recently became the second state to outright refuse to follow NCLB requirements. While the law allows no more than 1 percent of students to be exempted from grade-level tests because of learning disabilities, Texas allowed nearly 10 times that amount to take an alternate state test. Although the state had requested a waiver to do so last April, that request was denied by the Department of Education in July. The repercussions of Texas' action are yet to be determined. The only other state to consciously defy NCLB, Minnesota, was fined $113,000 in 2003.
A waiver also was refused to Connecticut recently when officials in that state sought to continue its 20-year practice of testing students every other year. In response to the request, the Department of Education said some aspects of NCLB are "not negotiable," including the requirement that students are tested every year in grades 3 through 8. Connecticut Education Commissioner Betty Sternberg expressed disappointment that they were not able to have a "real discussion" about the issue. Connecticut also announced this week that $41.6 million of the state's own money will be required to implement NCLB through 2008.
Virginia also is concerned about the cost of NCLB. Its state legislature has requested a cost analysis to be completed by October 1 to aid the state in weighing the cost of withdrawing from NCLB. Virginia lawmakers have said the federal government is interfering with the state's preexisting accountability system.
Governors Call for Rigor in High Schools
State governors, who called for raising high school standards at a recent education summit, are also concerned about the cost and ramifications of NCLB implementation, including a proposed expansion of the law's goals to high schools. Republican governors from Vermont and Nebraska said they would need to hear the details of the expansion before deciding, but both expressed resistance. "We don't want another burdensome federal program," said Vermont governor James Douglas.
What the governors want is to boost high school graduation rates and college and work-readiness. However, Virginia's Democratic governor, Mark Warner, asserted that NCLB "is not a model for legislation." At the summit, a coalition of 13 states announced plans to raise diploma requirements and require more difficult high school classes. The coalition states serve more than a third of the nation's high school students and their work will be supported by $42 million dollars from six foundations and public grants.
With lawmakers and business leaders rallying around the need to better align high school with the demands of college and the workforce, other goals of education, such as preparing students for citizenship, received little attention.
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© 2005 Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development