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'The Department Serves as Our Conscience'

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I serve in a position of leadership in a state education agency where we view the U.S. Department of Education as a partner. Neither assumes that we have unconditional agreement or that the relationship is without friction. However, the state cooperates with the department to ensure a quality, equitable education for all children. While we maintain our independence, we do have an obligation to them, and they to us.

The department continues to evolve, and, I say unequivocally, "thank goodness." The department has realized that in its job of carrying out congressional legislation, it must consider the needs and voices of the states and districts when it makes decisions.

Is there a need for regulations? Yes. Are mountains of documentation necessary? Sometimes. For example, special-education programs, with their multitude of forms, have benefited children with disabilities. The forms provide a road map of assurances that these children have equal access to a quality education and that they are placed in the least restrictive environment for the child, with parental agreement. Our partners, the federal government, insisted on those fundamental points.

The education department requires that states produce verifiable information each year about children who speak a primary language other than English. Though quite a task, that verification drives the dollars to the states. States, in turn, grant funds to districts that have significant numbers of language-minority students to ensure they, too, have equal access to an education. Our partner requires similar paperwork of us before we can receive funds for migrant and homeless children. At the end of the year, it asks for evidence showing that those children benefited from the money. This paperwork, though time-consuming, is important. Funds for such programs are limited, and, in some cases, states or districts show some resistance to serving these populations.

Then we have Title I, currently a $6.4 billion program, serving more than 5 million children. Congress and the department seem to have redefined their roles, giving states much more flexibility in spending Title I money. And rightly so. Some states have embraced this opportunity, while others are still ingrained in the old ways, going to the federal folks for explicit direction. For those that have started to implement the new way of doing business, it sometimes feels like our curfew has been dropped, and we're staying out all night. We are not quite certain of the consequences of our behavior or the accountability expected of us. Both state and federal partners share in this dilemma. Whereas states once received detailed direction, we now receive limited or no direction. Though this is a maturing experience, it is not without panic.

The federal government needs to continue to issue regulations to ensure that all students have equal access to an education. More important, as we move into the 21st century, the federal role should be to provide guidance, to facilitate best practices, and to provide support for quality and equitable education.

Can the federal government do this job well when states and territories are so vastly different? Perhaps. The recent redesign of the federal office of elementary and secondary education into 10 regional divisions is a start in dealing with the complexities and differences among districts in a more cohesive manner. By consolidating technical assistance, while keeping the centers regional, the department has streamlined the process, making implementation an easier task.

Sure, federal involvement could be more useful and efficient, but barriers to the department's helping us are not barriers of their making. Disseminating information--a critical component to program implementation--is not the sole responsibility of the department. It is almost impossible, for instance, to get a copy of current federal laws, because Congress, not the department, places restrictions on the number of copies it can print and disseminate. Although my job is to carry out these laws at the state level, I personally still refer to an outdated copy of the bill--before it even became law.

The federal Office of Management and Budget shares blame for a long turnaround time on documents. The education department's responsibility to states is to provide documents that interpret federal laws and offer guidance as we implement them. Before we ever see these documents, though, the OMB must review and approve them. And they give themselves 60 working days to do so--an interminable length of time for states to wait for guidance. Sixty working days, of course, grows into several months if the federal government shuts down over budget disputes. Dissemination of information is an important function of the department; timely dissemination is imperative.

The federal role in education is changing before our very eyes. The federal government's role as states' partner is not always relished, but it strengthens service to districts, schools, families, and children. Before Congress abolishes the department of education, allowing states to choose whether to allocate funds to build roads, feed the elderly, or educate children, it needs a reality check. The federal government's involvement in schooling is for the greater good. It serves as our conscience for quality and equity. Room for improvement? You bet there is. Improvement, though, is an ongoing process--one that we all must actively continue.

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