Dozen States Interested In Latitude for Federal Dollars

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Twelve states have told the Department of Education they may apply for a new pilot program that would provide some extra leeway in spending federal aid.

No more than seven states may participate under the "State-Flex" initiative in the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001. That section of the wide-ranging rewrite of the main federal education law represents a political compromise that fell far short of the kind of latitude President Bush had originally envisioned for states when he outlined his version of the law shortly after taking office.

Even so, it has generated some interest.

"Any time we can get additional flexibility to target our resources and efforts around our reform initiatives, ... that's certainly of great benefit to us," said William E. Windler, an assistant commissioner of education in Colorado, which is among the states to serve notice that they're eyeing the program.

However, "may apply" is the operating phrase for at least a few of the states that sent letters to the Education Department last month. Officials in Illinois and Tennessee, for example, said they still hadn't made up their minds about seeking the flexibility and were awaiting more detailed guidelines, due out this summer.

"We may [arrive] at a point where State-Flex could help us, but we're not ready to commit," said Judith A. Morgan, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education. "We're still considering what the benefit would be and how it would fit into what we're doing here."

The federal department asked states to indicate by May 8 if they were considering applying for State-Flex. In essence, the program would allow participating states to consolidate certain federal funds for state-level activities and state administration under the No Child Left Behind Act. The law, signed by the president in January, reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Since the vast majority of federal aid is directed to school districts, the amount available to states to use with greater discretion would be relatively small. Originally, the idea embraced by congressional Republicans and President Bush was to allow a state to take the reins on most of the federal aid under the ESEA, including the $10.4 billion Title I program, in return for signing a performance agreement. Many congressional Democrats objected to giving states such a block grant.

Those states that apply for the State-Flex program must recruit between four and 10 districts to enter performance agreements with the state that promise academic progress over time.

For their part, districts that signed up would be free to consolidate money they received under several programs, including teacher quality, technology, and safe schools, and spend it on any educational purpose permitted under the ESEA to meet the goal of improved academic achievement.

The Education Department this summer will hold a competition to select three to four states for State-Flex authority. It will hold another competition later in the year to choose the others.

In states that do not take part in State-Flex, up to 80 districts may apply to negotiate performance agreements directly with the federal Education Department for increased flexibility. With up to 80 districts allowed to take this route, in theory, as many as 150 nationwide could be granted the additional flexibility.

In Colorado, Mr. Windler predicted the biggest challenge for his state's application would be persuading districts to sign up.

"It will be necessary to do some public relations work, if you will," he said. "Most school districts are interested in more flexibility. It's a matter of prioritizing things. ... The first priority [for districts] is to get aligned with fundamental pieces of [the new law]."

Nebraska is also interested. "While we don't know the specifics of the flexibility we want, we want all the flexibility we can stand," said Douglas D. Christensen, the state education commissioner.

'Feeble Gesture'

But some argue that while the new law is heavy on accountability, the flexibility aspect, especially for states, was largely lost in the political shuffle.

"The original idea was to treat states much like giant charter schools from Washington's standpoint," said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington think tank. He called the program a "feeble gesture" toward flexibility.

"It's the sort of kiss-your-sister version," said Mr. Finn, who was an assistant education secretary during the Reagan administration. "It's the passionless kind."

Vol. 21, Issue 39, Page 18

Published in Print: June 5, 2002, as Dozen States Interested In Latitude for Federal Dollars
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