Top Department of Education officials offered a generally optimistic outlook last week on how the new federal education law is playing out in states and school districts. They coupled that ration of sunshine, however, with a healthy dose of pragmatism, cautioning that ambitious changes would take time.
“I’m upbeat about it,” Secretary of Education Rod Paige said in a Sept. 3 briefing with reporters. “I think some good things are happening out there.”
He added: “Nothing I’m saying should be interpreted to mean that I’m in some type of LaLa Land and don’t believe that there are a lot of difficulties out there for us to deal with. ... (B)ut keep in mind, we are one week into a 12-year program.”
One wrinkle agency leaders discussed last week was the effort of school officials in Augusta, Ga., to delay for a year compliance with the law’s school choice mandate. The district is citing potential conflicts with a federal desegregation order, among other considerations. The department is insisting the Augusta schools comply now.
With the new school year just getting under way in most places, department officials in their press conference discussed at length the implementation of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, which President Bush signed in January. A revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the law requires states and districts to ensure that all students meet a state standard of academic “proficiency” over 12 years. It also requires certain consequences when schools stumble along the path toward that goal.
New mandates aimed at ensuring a high-quality teacher workforce are also among the provisions.
Perhaps the issue that has attracted the most attention recently from the news media is the law’s school choice mandate. Districts must allow students in schools that fail to make “adequate yearly progress” on test scores for two consecutive years to transfer to other, higher-performing public schools. The districts must use a portion of their federal aid to pay transportation costs.
While nationwide data are not available on participation, news accounts have generally found relatively few students exercising choice this fall under the new law. Why? Officials say, among other reasons, that many families are opting to stay put, at least for now; that large urban districts have few available spaces in higher-performing schools; and that many rural areas lack real alternatives. (“Few Choosing Public School Choice for This Fall,” Aug. 7, 2002.)
Mr. Paige said he was not disappointed that in some districts, most parents have decided not to move their children.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “In fact, I think it’s good. Our idea is to expand the options for parents, ... not to tell them to transfer.” At the same time, he predicted that more parents will likely exercise choice in the coming years.
Asked whether the law risks breeding frustration from parents who want options but are told there is no room elsewhere, Undersecretary Eugene W. Hickok suggested that reaction might not be so bad.
“I think if there is some frustration,” Mr. Hickok said, “the virtue of that frustration might very well be that it tells local administrators, ‘You need to develop more choices for us because that’s what the law says,’ and we’ll be joining in that conversation as well.”
Mr. Paige said the department was dealing with a range of problems it had heard about from around the country.
“We’re trying to look at the legitimate problems, and some problems which are just foot-dragging problems,” he said. “But the bottom line is this: We have every intent and zero reluctance in moving forward with the law, in insisting upon the congressional intent.”
Late last month, the Education Department intervened in one case that it appears to deem foot-dragging. The 35,000-student Richmond County school system in Georgia asked a federal judge overseeing its desegregation order for a one-year reprieve in complying with the choice requirement.
Not so fast, the department said.
“We believe you should go back to the court immediately and submit whatever changes are needed to your desegregation plan to permit you to comply with the [law] this year,” Undersecretary Hickok wrote in an Aug. 28 letter. He said the federal agency had made clear that was how districts should proceed. “That is just the opposite of what your agency did in this instance,” he wrote.
Justin T. Martin, a spokesman for the Georgia district, said local officials were still trying to reconcile federal requirements with the 30-year-old desegregation order, as well as recent state mandates. Therefore, he said, the district asked the judge for more time.
The district, he said, has not yet decided if it will seek to revisit the matter with the federal court.
One day after the department’s briefing, President Bush hosted an education event at the White House for a group of education officials he had invited from around the country to talk about their progress in implementing the No Child Left Behind Act.
“I understand the difficulty of changing a system that doesn’t like to change,” he said. “It’s hard. I know that. And yet, the bill we passed says you’ve got to change.”
Tom Loveless, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the Bush administration may be overplaying the role of school choice in changing schools.
“That may be a very weak lever for reform,” Mr. Loveless said. “If you can’t offer it to very many parents [in some places], and if only a few will take advantage,” he continued, “it’s not going to have a very strong impact.”
Overall, Secretary Paige said, the nation is now “witnessing a shift in the whole culture of education. People are going to look back years from now, and they’re going to see this was the time when things changed.”
But Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, isn’t so sure the change will be as the secretary envisions it.
“Who can blame him for saying it? Go back to last time [the law was reauthorized in 1994]—somebody said something like that, too.” Mr. Hunter suggested that the new version of the ESEA signals a different kind of shift.
“They’ll say, that was the year the federal government seized the reins,” he said. “I hope by 20 years from now, the federal government is paying their fare share.”