April 20, 2005, 7:53AM
Texas Taking Its Time with No Child
The state tells feds it will keep defying rule until its Legislature adapts to law
By JUSTIN GEST
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Texas will continue to buck the federal No Child Left Behind Act until its Legislature changes state law to include the same requirements, state officials told the U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday.
Texas served in large part as President Bush's model for the national law.
But for the last two years, the Texas Education Agency has exceeded the federal cap on how many students with learning disabilities can be exempted from regular state testing. Including them could lower schools' overall passing rates, although officials say that's not the motive.
In a letter to the U.S. Education Department, agency officials told Secretary Margaret Spellings that she will have to wait while the state adapts to national standards at its own pace.
Spellings helped craft No Child Left Behind laws in Texas when she advised then-Gov. George W. Bush.
"Texas school districts may continue ... using alternative assessments, consistent with state law, at a rate that exceeds the cap imposed on the school district," state officials wrote.
The letter also said the Texas Legislature will consider amendments to state education laws to better align them with No Child Left Behind requirements, but no promises were made.
It is unlikely such legislation will be passed during this year's waning legislative session.
The Legislature is scheduled to convene next in 2007.
State law now authorizes a committee of a special-education student's parents, teachers and doctors to decide which test suits the child's needs.
The TEA letter was the agency's first public communication with the federal department since April 8, when Spellings threatened to cut Texas' federal funding for violating the cap. The secretary can cut as much as $11 million from the agency's annual federal allocation.
Education Department representatives declined to comment further until they review the letter.
Texas is the second state to officially declare that state education laws override the department's No Child Left Behind rules.
The Connecticut attorney general has announced plans to sue the Education Department for the right to disregard federal guidelines on grounds that the federal government fails to provide enough money.
Texas has defied the 3 percent federal cap on exemption by allowing 9 percent of its students to take an alternative exam.
TEA officials said they will try to phase into compliance by reducing exemptions to 5 percent, a limit created by the agency.
"Our tests were developed on specific statutes, and you can't change them overnight," said Criss Cloudt, TEA associate commissioner.
"It takes three years to create the assessment programs, and it will require another three years to change them."
Spellings has repeatedly said that the cap is not negotiable, and she has expressed disappointment with the resistance from her home state.
But on Tuesday, Texas Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley said in a private meeting of state education officials in Washington that she had a good relationship with the U.S. Education Department, according to an official who attended the meeting and spoke on the condition of not being identified.
The official said Neeley blamed the news media for exaggerating differences between the state and federal governments.
Neeley plans to meet with Deputy U.S. Education Secretary Raymond Simon today to discuss bringing the Texas plan in line with federal law.