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Published in Print: December 11, 2002, as Reporter's Notebook

Reporter's Notebook

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Governors Discuss School Ideas, Woes

With Election Day behind many of them, nearly half the nation's governors gathered here last week to face a tougher task than getting or staying elected: improving education in their states.

Twenty governors attended the conference, which was held just for them and their education advisers. The Dec. 1-2 meeting was a project of the James B. Hunt Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy, which is located here and led by the influential former North Carolina governor for which it's named. Mr. Hunt took part in the gathering.

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and members of his staff talked with governors about the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001, whose mandates are hitting some states hard. He promised their help as new requirements for testing and school accountability unfold. States face a Jan. 31 deadline for filing their accountability plans with Mr. Paige's agency. ("States Lurch Toward ESEA Compliance," this issue.)

James B. Hunt Jr.

"We're not going to tell you how to do it. We're going to tell you to set the standards and meet those standards," Secretary Paige said.

Mr. Hunt said all parts of the law are worth embracing. "We should have done it already," he said.

But one of his fellow Democrats, current North Carolina Gov. Michael F. Easley, lamented the plight of governors who must explain why the federal government will label large numbers of schools as "failing" when state indicators show the schools are better than that. "You've got eight seconds to try and explain all of this," Gov. Easley said. "I'm worried about the motivational factor for teachers."

Gov. Bob Taft of Ohio, a Republican, wondered aloud how the federal law might affect school choice in his state. The lowest-scoring schools in each state are required to allow students to transfer to other schools in the same district. The 77,000-student Cleveland schools, though, already have a different form of school choice: a voucher plan that was upheld this year by the U.S. Supreme Court. "In our urban districts, there could be some unintended consequences," Gov. Taft said.

New Mexico's Democratic governor-elect, Bill Richardson, a former Cabinet member in the Clinton administration, said some of his state's small schools that struggle with high dropout rates might be unable to show improvement by federal standards, even if they have made real progress. The new federal accountability demands amount to an "unfunded mandate for rural areas," he said.

All the talk about how the federal law and its required plans could be a distraction, warned Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, a Republican. "The plans right now are on how you're going to measure, not how you're going to improve," he said.

New governors and their advisers also wanted to know how they should set legislative priorities on education, especially in a year when few states have extra money.

Responding to a frank question about where to turn for advice by Democratic Gov.-elect Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, Mr. Hunt suggested that governors seek advice from educators, business leaders, parents, and others. He and his successor, Mr. Easley, have full-time teachers as advisers, as well as formal advisory panels.

Judith Rizzo, the executive director of the Hunt Institute and a former deputy schools chancellor in New York City, stressed that implementation is as important as passage of education reforms. "If you don't know how to get it to the classroom level, it's a waste of money," she said.

Former Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, who became the superintendent of the 737,000-student Los Angeles schools two years ago, said governors should ensure that standardized tests can be used to diagnose students' academic weaknesses, rather than simply for judging schools.

But, as Gov. Easley pointed out, governors in cash-strapped states may need to find new ways to raise money for education. In his case, the state cut more than $1 billion from its total budget and reorganized itself while still increasing money for schools through a slight hike in the state's sales tax, he said.

—Alan Richard

Vol. 22, Issue 15, Page 14

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