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Published in Print: March 3, 2004, as Federal Law Is Questioned By Governors

Federal Law Is Questioned By Governors

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Many of the nation's governors gathered here for their winter conference called for changes to the No Child Left Behind Act or its regulations, even as the Bush administration continued to defend its level of cooperation with states under the law.

Fifty state and territorial governors attended the National Governors Association conference, held Feb. 21-24. While the economy, homeland security, and health care dominated much of the meeting, the governors had plenty to say about the federal education law.

The governors met against a backdrop of rising discontent over the law among state legislators of both parties, and complaints from top congressional Democrats over how the administration is implementing it.

The NGA will shape its positions on the federal law based in part on discussions from the conference. "We're going to have to be willing to admit that there may be additional changes needed in the future, and to this point, the [U.S. Education] Department has been willing to make some of those changes," said Dane Linn, the NGA's education director. "If we're not willing to admit that more changes may be needed down the road, we run the risk of not ensuring this legislation will meet its intended goals."

Some governors had hoped to ask President Bush and Secretary of Education Rod Paige directly for more flexibility under the No Child Left Behind Act, and to discuss possible amendments to the law, during a private meeting at the White House. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, had even been tapped to raise the issue.

They never got that far.

A highly publicized comment made by Mr. Paige during the Feb. 23 meeting with the governors, in which he called the National Education Association a "terrorist organization," cut debate short.

"Secretary Paige talked about it, but the discussion suddenly ended after he made his comment," said Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a Democrat. "It wasn't really discussed in full."

Mr. Paige later apologized for the remark. ("Furor Lingers Over Paige's Union Remark," this issue.)

Aides said the governors intended to raise concerns with the president and Mr. Paige about Washington's increased oversight of public education, the level of federal aid, teacher-quality rules, and test-score goals that label many schools as failing.

Awaiting Consensus

Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, a Republican, defended the Bush administration's handling of the law. "Are there details that need to be worked out? Yes," he said. "Are we heading in the right direction? Yes."

Montana Gov. Judy Martz, also a Republican, said her state's small schools will struggle with the law's teacher-quality requirements. "I don't think there's any consensus among the governors to support an amendment" to the law, she added, however. "We can't do an amendment until we know what we agree on."

Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, a Democrat, said the law would fail if large numbers of schools in his state and others did not meet federal standards simply because some states require greater gains under the law than others do.

The federal law allows states to follow their own standards in determining whether schools are making "adequate yearly progress," the chief accountability measure under the law. But some federal rules exceed what most states have required under their own accountability systems.

"In a sense, it undermines the confidence people have in No Child Left Behind, because the people know these schools are good schools," Gov. Warner said.

Concerns on Capitol Hill

Governors weren't the only ones in Washington talking about the education law last week.

Congressional Democrats who helped craft the No Child Left Behind law— a revised version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first passed in 1965—met with Secretary Paige on Feb. 24 to voice concerns about how the Bush administration has handled key implementation issues.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, suggested recently that he might introduce "corrective legislation" to amend the law if the Bush administration did not go far enough in addressing the Democrats' complaints. Those concerns were outlined in a six- page letter delivered to the secretary Jan. 8, the two-year anniversary of the law. ("Kennedy Hints at Amending 'No Child' Law," Feb. 25, 2004.)

After the meeting last week, Mr. Kennedy's spokesman, Jim Manley, said the senator was still contemplating a corrective bill, but had not made a final decision.

Pressure appears to be mounting from many quarters for easing some of the law's demands.

"I know members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, are hearing an uproar from educators and others when they go back home about No Child Left Behind," said Joel Packer, who is coordinating activities around the federal law for the NEA, which is seeking changes in the legislation.

State lawmakers have expressed their concerns with the federal law in resolutions or bills seeking relief from its mandates.

In a letter he gave to Democrats on the same day they met, Secretary Paige defended the Department of Education's efforts to implement the law, and described as "unfair" some of the assertions made in the Democrats' letter.

"In the three years of this administration, the Department of Education has transformed its relationship with both the states and local school districts," he said. "The level of outreach and cooperation extended to the states on a range of issues has been unprecedented. And, unlike previous years, this administration is actively enforcing the laws that have been passed by Congress and signed by the president."

Mr. Paige pointed to recent policy changes the department has made to give states more flexibility. Late last month, for example, the department relaxed its policies on testing students with limited English proficiency. ("Paige Softens Rules on English-Language Learners," Feb. 25, 2004.)

The secretary's letter did not discuss many of the detailed concerns outlined by Democrats. While some of those objections touch on issues related to the law's accountability demands, the Democrats appeared to stand by its core accountability requirements.

Nonetheless, Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said the meeting with Secretary Paige and the department's response letter "have reinforced my view that the Bush administration continues to drift further and further away from its promise to improve America's schools."

'Common Sense'

In an interview during the governors' conference, meanwhile, former North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. said that momentum may be building for changing the law. He was at the meeting to plug his governors' leadership institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"Things that aren't working, that don't make sense, are going to have to change," said Mr. Hunt, an early champion of state accountability systems, which helped lay the groundwork for the federal law. "I think there's a lot of sentiment in that direction."

Gov. Linda Lingle of Hawaii, a Republican, acknowledged that some states were looking to opt out of portions of the law. She backs it as written, however. "For people in my state, they just think it's common sense," she said.

Gov. Gary Locke of Washington, a Democrat, called the No Child Left Behind Act a "very needed, well-intended law," but added that he wants changes. "We need much more flexibility," he said, "and we need to fully fund it."

"It is so frightfully weak on resources," added Gov. Richardson of New Mexico. Without more funds to help low-rated schools, he said, "you're going to see a revolt in the states."

Federal officials countered last week that the Bush administration is providing enough flexibility and funding for states to follow the law.

Ron Tomalis, a counselor to Secretary Paige, said many states have more flexibility than they realize. "Sometimes when we sit down and show the governors how much of the decisionmaking" lies with them, he said, "it's more than a little bit of an eye-opener."

"This president has given more to K-12 public education in the last three years than in the preceding eight years combined," he said. "It's important that states ... look to see how it can and will complement what they're doing."

Vol. 23, Issue 25, Pages 1,17

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