Governors Edge Toward Position on NCLB
In a shift of direction, NGA vows a lobbying effort in law’s renewal.
The nation’s governors, who were noticeably absent when Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act more than five years ago, are vowing to take a front-row seat as the law comes up for renewal this year.
Led by Gov. Christine Gregoire of Washington and Gov. Donald L. Carcieri of Rhode Island, the bipartisan lobbying effort kicked into high gear during the National Governors Association’s winter meeting here Feb. 24-27.
The two met privately with U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings last week to start the discussion, and they will urge fellow governors to work with their chief state school officers to appoint one person from each state to coordinate policy efforts on NCLB reauthorization. Representatives from all interested states will convene in the next couple of months to nail down changes the governors would like to see.
After that, Gov. Gregoire, a Democrat, and Gov. Carcieri, a Republican, may seek a follow-up meeting with Secretary Spellings. And, if needed, the governors will testify before Congress.
“We will be very active,” Gov. Carcieri said in an interview. “We want to fairly quickly come together and develop very strong opinions on the policy.”
In their initial meeting with Ms. Spellings, Gov. Carcieri said, he and Gov. Gregoire laid the groundwork for future discussions by listening to the secretary’s take on the reauthorization, and indicating the governors wanted to be closely involved in shaping the next version of the law.
Joan E. Wodiska, the director of the NGA’s education committee and the coordinator of the lobbying effort, said the governors are concerned about four key areas: increasing the support for teachers; giving states more flexibility on accountability; increasing funding; and giving states more say in which tests are used, who is tested, and what penalties can be used for poorly performing schools, for example.
The next step, she said, is to get a majority of governors—both Democrats and Republicans—to agree on policy recommendations.
Children’s health-care funding and the preparation of American students to compete in a global economy were, along with reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, among the major topics at the winter meeting of the National Governors Association, held here Feb. 24-27.
Among the highlights of the gathering:
• Thirteen governors, both Democrats and Republicans, signed a letter to top congressional leaders in both parties urging them to quickly renew and increase financing for the S-CHIP program that pays for health care for nearly 6 million low-income children. Those governors are facing funding shortfalls in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, said his state will run out of money for S-CHIP as early as this month and has already stopped enrolling additional children in the program, which serves 273,000. New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, added that 9 million youngsters nationwide who qualify for the program still are not covered.
The Bush administration has proposed funding the program at $29 billion over five years, which the governors say is insufficient. U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael O. Leavitt, who spoke to the governors at their meeting, said that renewing the program is a high priority and pledged to work with states that are facing immediate financial shortfalls.
• Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat and the chairwoman of the NGA, continued to promote her “Innovation America” initiative, which encourages states to enhance the number and quality of mathematics and science classes in school.
She announced at the meeting that the NGA, through money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Intel Foundation, will provide a total of $3 million in grants to up to six states for the redesign of high school curricula in science, technology, engineering, and math.
• U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee and former governor of that state, told governors that perhaps the most important step they can take to improve K-12 education is “to pay teachers more for teaching well”—touching on the hot-button issue of pay for performance.
“The governors are in the game. Now, we just have to work out the details to make sure our suggestions are meaningful,” Ms. Wodiska said.
One common theme emerged at the governors’ meeting: Though they agree with the fundamental components of testing and accountability at the heart of the NCLB law, many governors feel states need more flexibility and funding to see the changes through.
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat and the chairwoman of the NGA, summed up the existing federal law as a “one size fits all” approach to school improvement that isn’t as effective as it could be.
Katherine McLane, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, said the priorities Ms. Spellings laid out for the reauthorization include “a number of flexibilities,” such as allowing states to use so-called growth models to measure student progress and alternative standards to measure special education students’ achievement.
Even though education is a top priority for the NGA, the bipartisan organization that represents all the state governors generally has shied away from particularly divisive issues, which has deterred the group—until now—from lobbying on the NCLB law.
“We admit the NGA was not involved,” said Gov. Gregoire. “It’s a different day. Whether we are in charge of education or not, it always comes back that we’re responsible for it. We will make sure our voices are heard.”
Disputes about the NCLB law are an example of the ongoing power struggle over what a number of governors at last week’s meeting complain are unfunded mandates from the federal government. Governors also complain that the federal government is interfering in what should be state-level decisions. In particular, a number of them object to part of the Bush administration’s blueprint for the NCLB reauthorization that calls for the federal law to override state moratoriums on the expansion of charter schools.
Gov. Carcieri is one of those who object—even though he said it would help his cause in Rhode Island, where he wants to see lawmakers lift the moratorium they placed on charter schools in 2004. His point is that the federal government shouldn’t be interfering.
“That’s the state’s role,” he said of such changes.
Such debates come at a time when the governors are being pressured from all sides to make improvements in K-12 education, which takes up about 50 percent of states’ budgets. Around the country, for example, local education groups are pushing for increased school funding and taking their states to court—in Missouri, for example, a coalition comprising nearly half the state’s public school districts is suing to increase school funding.
Meanwhile, the federal government is bearing down on states to comply with the No Child Left Behind law, which requires annual testing in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school, a range of penalties for schools that don’t show adequate yearly progress, and extra help for students in underperforming schools. The goal of the law is that all students be proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year.
But achieving consensus among the 50 states on how to improve the law won’t be easy. Many states have their own specific concerns about the act.
Virginia, for example, has tangled with the U.S. Department of Education over how English-language learners are tested. Connecticut is suing the federal government over what it contends is a failure to provide enough money to implement the law.
In Minnesota, one of the biggest issues, as Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty sees it, is labeling an entire school as needing improvement if one subset of the student population, such as special education students, lags behind on achievement tests.
North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven, also a Republican, echoed that sentiment. “Governors believe in accountability,” he said. “But how we measure that progress—that’s going to be a big part of the discussion.”
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