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Published in Print: March 17, 2004, as Paige Stresses Flexibility Of Education Law

Paige Stresses Flexibility Of Education Law

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Secretary of Education Rod Paige planned to announce this week new ways to make it easier for some school districts to meet the requirements for highly qualified teachers under the No Child Left Behind Act.

At a meeting with state lawmakers here on March 11, Mr. Paige said the new regulations could particularly help in rural areas, where teachers often provide instruction in more than one subject. The secretary did not elaborate on the proposal at the meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The No Child Left Behind law calls for a "highly qualified" teacher in every core academic classroom, meaning that teachers must hold degrees in the subjects they teach or pass exams on their subject-area knowledge.

Some lawmakers said they looked forward to hearing more about the flexibility provisions.

"We're having trouble qualifying teachers in our rural schools," said Roy Brown, the majority leader of the Montana House of Representatives. "This is very interesting to me."

Mr. Paige announced the forthcoming regulation as he sought to emphasize the flexibility of the federal education law before the group, whose members have not all embraced its requirements. During the meeting, he stressed his willingness to work with states to comply with the statute, calling it "one of the most misunderstood laws in our nation's history."

Many states have complained about the cost and complexity of implementing the law's requirements. Mr. Paige told the legislators that he respected those who had legitimate concerns about states' rights, and he said the law provides a framework that the states must fill in.

But he added: "There are some people who are purposely causing a dust-up for whatever reason. They have their own agenda, I guess, and I won't speculate about motives."

The secretary also stressed his belief that the law was not an "unfunded mandate," and that there were "historic levels" of federal money being sent to states for education, even though critics have been quick to dismiss such arguments. A day earlier, the NCSL released a report estimating that the cost to states of complying with the No Child Left Behind law this fiscal year would be $9.6 billion beyond what the federal government is providing.

"I just don't think the study is right," Mr. Paige said.

Wearing 'Blinders'?

Despite the secretary's talk of flexibility and insistence that plenty of federal money was being provided, some state lawmakers weren't buying it.

"He's not coming to terms with the challenges of No Child Left Behind," said Jeff Merkley, the Democratic leader of the Oregon House. "He's really put on blinders."

Mr. Merkley said he believes the Education Department's recent moves toward flexibility, such as the department's announcement last month that it was relaxing its rules on testing students with limited English proficiency, were just "window dressing."

"If I sound harsh, it's because I think these are important ideas, but to send them to states without resources is hugely unhelpful," he said.

State Rep. Patricia Jones of Utah, a Democrat, said she believes the new attempts at flexibility have come only in response to an outcry from the states.

"I don't see where flexibility comes in when funding is inadequate," she said. "They've painted themselves into a corner."

But Utah House Speaker Marty Stephens, a Republican who is the president of the NCSL, said he appreciated the department's willingness to reach out and work with states.

Last month, Utah lawmakers were poised to reject $103 million in federal aid to avoid the federal law's requirements. Federal officials descended on the state. The matter has since been put on hold.

"I know some legislators here have been somewhat critical, and I appreciate [Mr. Paige's] willingness to come and take their questions," Mr. Stephens said.

Secretary Paige urged the legislators in the session to get in touch with the department with questions and concerns about the law.

"Never before," he said, "has there been such effort in working and listening as partners."

Vol. 23, Issue 27, Pages 40,49

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