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Published in Print: April 2, 2003, as Montana Leads Choir of Rural Concerns Over 'No Child' Law

Montana Leads Choir of Rural Concerns Over 'No Child' Law

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In a sign that disenchantment with the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001 may be growing in rural America, Montana's Republican governor wants the federal government to change parts of the law that she believes will hit many rural schools and states the hardest.

Gov. Judy Martz

Gov. Judy Martz co-wrote a letter dated March 19 to her state's congressional delegation, saying Montana cannot meet the federal law's mandates without flexibility and waivers in some cases.

"I do support the president in this agenda. It's something that's been badly needed," the governor said in an interview last week. "But having said that, there are some things as we walk through it that, not only for rural Montana but the rural parts of our nation, have to be addressed."

Educators and leaders in several rural states share her worries.

Many say the law's requirements that states ensure a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom and provide help for perhaps thousands of low-performing schools will cost too much and require much larger staffs than many state education agencies now have.

Gov. Martz and other leaders in rural states also worry that the tiny enrollments of many rural schools will skew test-score results and thus force states to punish schools based on unreliable or wildly fluctuating data.

The leaders also are concerned about the ability of states and schools to collect and analyze vast new amounts of data, and to provide school transfers or extra help for students in low-rated schools.

Asked if she thought it impossible for Montana to meet certain parts of the law, Gov. Martz replied: "It's pretty impossible to do right now, yes. I think they're going to have to let rural communities and rural states [have some flexibility]."

In the Same Boat

Echoing Montana's concerns, the Alaska state board of education passed a resolution March 21 asking the U.S. Department of Education to allow its state to diverge somewhat from the No Child Left Behind Act, an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

If the department doesn't agree, the resolution says, the board will ask Congress to intervene.

The law requires states to measure annual progress in reading and mathematics separately based on the percent of students who score at least at the "proficient" level on state tests. Alaska wants to gauge yearly progress by combining the results of tests in reading, writing, and math; the scores from students at all achievement levels; and a measure of students' growth over time. Otherwise, in a state where 135 of the public schools enroll fewer than 100 students each, the success of each school as determined by such measures could rise and fall dramatically each year, Alaska officials say.

"We need this flexibility for it to work in Alaska," said Harry Gamble, the spokesman for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

Alaska officials also worry about the federal law's requirement that every teacher be "highly qualified" in every subject they teach by the end of the 2005-06 school year, or right now for newly hired teachers in Title I schools. Currently, 20 percent of Alaska's schools employ three or fewer teachers, most of whom teach multiple subjects and grades.

Mr. Gamble said that Gov. Frank H. Murkowski, recently retired state Commissioner of Education Shirley Holloway, and others traveled to Washington in March to make their pitch to federal officials.

"It didn't seem like they were empathetic to our plan, but we don't know yet," Mr. Gamble said.

The National Rural Education Association has passed a legislative platform that "supports the suspension of the enforcement of this act if there are not necessary modifications and funding to assist rural districts in complying" with the federal education law.

"There comes a point where there's got to be some middle ground here," added Polly Feis, the deputy education commissioner in Nebraska, where leaders have similar concerns.

Meeting of the Minds?

Officials of the federal Department of Education continue to say they will cooperate with states as much as possible to help them meet the intent of the law.

"Secretary Paige and his team absolutely recognize the concerns that have been raised," Education Department spokesman Dan Langan said last week. "There are lots of different issues that are often unique to individual states."

But state leaders might not be able to count on the federal department to agree with them.

"We think it's way too premature to talk about opening this law, and we wouldn't be very inclined to support that," Mr. Langan said.

Montana leaders made some of their specific wishes known in their letter last month. It requests that the federal law "be changed to allow states to waive the most stringent requirements for highly qualified teachers" if states perform at or above national averages on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. The letter also solicited more funding to help states assist low-performing schools, and sought extra time for rural schools to meet test-score goals.

The Council of Chief State Schools Officers is working to help states iron out their issues with the law, said Patricia Sullivan, a deputy executive director of the Washington-based group. "I honestly don't think anybody at this point has the solutions nailed down," she said.

Vol. 22, Issue 29, Page 26

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