Superintendent Paul W. Doerrer walked into his office the morning after Congress passed the “No Child Left Behind” Act wondering how his district would ever be able to meet all the new requirements.
Then he spotted a brochure on the fax machine with an offer to solve his problems. A company he hadn’t heard of before was offering workshops for school district administrators that promised to explain the law’s requirements. Mr. Doerrer remembers thinking: If the federal government hasn’t yet offered any official guidelines on the legislation, how could an outside company be ready to advise districts?
“I got a kick out of that, and just tossed it out,” said Mr. Doerrer, who runs the 6,590-student Ritenour school district in St. Louis, of the solicitation. “I chuckled to myself about how they were all ready to go the instant it passed. You have to admire that.”
As administrators clamor for guidance on the new law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a cottage industry has been born to answer the call. Consultants and businesses are leaving behind no opportunity to come to the rescue of districts with ESEA-related products and services, from workshops about the law to computerized accountability systems that claim to meet federal requirements.
The Department of Education does not regulate such claims or products. And since the new law creates more opportunities for districts to hire private vendors for services, school officials face a growing responsibility to choose vendors wisely.
“There is an onus on districts to make sure the products or services they purchase will meet the federal and state law,” said Dan Langan, a spokesman for Secretary of Education Rod Paige. “School districts must be very vigilant and bear responsibility that whatever investment they make is appropriate.”
‘Capitalism at Its Purest’
A spokesman for a national group that represents superintendents and other district-level administrators said school districts might be tempted by offers for guidance on the law because they are feeling intimidated by its requirements for, among other steps, increased testing and more highly qualified teachers.
“It’s capitalism at its purest,” said Bruce Hunter, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, a group that is offering its own workshops on the law. “People are going to try and take advantage of the rhetoric about the ‘sweeping, landmark changes’ this law has. Who can blame consultants?”
Some ESEA-related offers are from well- established law firms or professional associations that deal with federal education law regularly, while others are from groups or companies that may be unknown to educators. Either way, Mr. Hunter said, no one has any definitive knowledge on implementation of the new law.
“With no answers from the federal government, all you can trust is those guys who come by with a firm handshake and a slick brochure,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to buy schlock at a time when the stakes are so high.”
When a federal law changes the requirements for school districts, there is usually a lag time before the Education Department issues guidelines on how to carry out the changes.
But this time, some educators say they are particularly perplexed because deadlines for meeting some of the requirements have already passed. Several changes, including higher standards for hiring paraprofessionals, took effect when President Bush signed the measure into law last month.
But federal officials said the Education Department is doing everything it can to seek input and offer school officials help.
“It’s not as if the law passed and there is a void of information,” Mr. Langan said. “There will be unprecedented outreach.”
The department has been gathering comments for the past few weeks from various educators. Last month, Secretary Paige hosted a meeting with state schools chiefs to outline the law and to lay out preliminary plans for carrying it out. And last week, he met with superintendents from urban school districts to take questions and discuss the law.
Several meetings will be held in March to gather more comments and draw up regulations, Mr. Langan said. The guidelines could be issued by July 1, department officials say.
Still, that’s not soon enough for some educators, said Kristen Tosh Cowan, a lawyer with Brustein & Manasevit, a Washington law firm that specializes in federal education law. The firm has been running workshops on the new ESEA.
“The level of frustration and concern that districts have is huge,” Ms. Cowan said. “They are looking for information. We are very open with people that at this point we can only give our best guess.
“A lot of the new law is very straightforward, some of it is badly written, and we have to do our best to understand it,” she said.
Richard Long, the director of the National Association of State Title I Directors, a group based in Arlington, Va., that represents state officials involved with the biggest program under the ESEA, said workshops may be more useful later in the process.
“There are a couple of firms who have a good reputation offering workshops,” Mr. Long said. “At the same time, until the interpretations are drafted, now is a time to be reading the statute, and collectively trying to figure out.”
Marketing experts are telling companies to go after the federal dollars that schools will receive under the ESEA. The federal money is especially critical now because, with many states facing difficult financial times, school districts are seeing little or no growth in their local or state funding.
Discretionary spending for the Education Department in the federal 2002 budget, meanwhile, increased by almost 16 percent.
“Everyone else is broke,” Mr. Hunter of AASA said.
One marketing consultant for education businesses said that she is advising her clients to target their product and service development toward the new law.
“More emphasis is being spent on selling to large, urban districts,” said Carol Ann Waugh, the president of Xcellent Marketing in Denver, who has written articles about marketing services aimed at ESEA needs.
“These districts will be getting a larger part of the new funding,” she said, “and developing a successful approach to selling into these districts is now a top priority for most companies.”
It is by no means a new phenomenon for companies to flood the market with products and services geared to federal education measures. When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was reauthorized in 1997, many companies created software to help school officials write the more detailed individualized education plans that the revised law required for special education students, Mr. Hunter said.
With the new ESEA requiring schools to use “scientifically based” reading programs to help students, he said, the vendors will likely come out with products allegedly developed by people wearing the educational equivalent of white lab coats.
“Everyone is going to claim to be scientifically based,” he said. “A lot of people are going to waste money.”
For now, Mr. Doerrer, the Missouri superintendent, is trying to get familiar with the new law. Spurning the unsolicited advances from consultants, Mr. Doerrer said he will rely on the guidance from the state education department or professional associations.
“We have a copy of the act,” he said. “We are going through it. It’s pretty thick.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Demystifying ESEA: Companies See Opportunity