State Chiefs Use Transition Time to Press Policy

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As the transition to President-elect Barack Obama’s administration gets under way, state schools chiefs are trying to position themselves to be a strong, influential voice on education improvements—even as their own group is undergoing change.

The annual policy forum of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, which wrapped up Nov. 16 in Austin, Texas, drew 32 chiefs, plus some deputies, who worked to streamline their message on data, standards and accountability, and teacher education so they can present a unified front to the new administration.

At least 11 chiefs will be leaving in 2009 either because of election losses, retirements, or term limits. The shift in state education leadership comes amid leadership transition at the federal level and deteriorating economic conditions in the states, which so far have been forced into making current fiscal year budget cuts of $5.5 billion, according to the Washington-based National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers.

“We are going to have an opportunity to shape education in this country,” said Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the CCSSO, which represents the chiefs in 50 states. “We don’t need disparate messages.”

The forum also drew outgoing U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and one of Mr. Obama’s education advisers, Linda Darling-Hammond, both of whom are playing key roles in the changing of the education guard in Washington.

The chiefs already have a few messages for the incoming administration.

Though they support growth models to help determine adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act, they say the department needs to embrace more sophisticated models than it has previously required, which would take into account both status and growth—letting states come up with the best approach to fit their individual data systems.

The chiefs also want to fully understand how the department, under new leadership, will roll out regulations under Title I, the section of the education law that provides federal funding for low-income students. They also want to know how the department will try to force states to adopt a common definition of graduation.

And a number of those at the recent meeting said the push for common policy positions couldn’t have come at a more important time, with changes at the federal level and in many states, with the standards and accountability movement firmly in place, and the next generation of reforms waiting to be defined.

“The chiefs are the most unified I’ve ever seen them,” said T. Kenneth James, Arkansas’ chief and the new president of the CCSSO.

Laying the Groundwork

Ms. Darling-Hammond addressed the chiefs in a closed-door session on Nov. 16, and said later in an interview that she was there to communicate the broad ideas about the Obama administration, and not to talk specifics about the transition.

“I also wanted to get a sense of what the chiefs are interested in, and I’ll be feeding that to the transition,” said Ms. Darling-Hammond, who as of Nov. 16 described herself as an adviser to the transition.

During the recent election season, Mr. Wilhoit said his organization talked to both campaigns about what issues needed attention. “I don’t think we did that last time around,” he said.

The chiefs, and other state and local policymakers, have often been frustrated by what they saw as the Bush administration’s sometimes inflexible approach to accountability. So Ms. Darling-Hammond’s mere presence before the chiefs was encouraging, Mr. James said.

The chiefs feel even more urgency because the positions tend to turn over quickly, and governors who have a role in appointing chiefs in most states want results quickly.

“There’s a shelf life to this job,” said Rick Melmer, the outgoing South Dakota chief who starts a new job this month at the University of South Dakota after five years. “You can’t afford to wait four to six years to get something done.”

Ms. Spellings, who addressed the chiefs on Nov. 14, warned that on the federal level “it’s going to be awhile” before significant education issues are tackled because it takes so long to hire the top staff members. That leaves a “great opportunity” for states to step in and try to take charge, she said. Meanwhile, she described her department as on autopilot. “The less sound and fury in a transition the better,” she said.

The education secretary urged that her still-to-be-named successor respect the federal government’s shift from “an aspiration approach to real accountability.”

As for the looming 2014 NCLB law’s deadline for all students to be proficient and on grade level in math and reading, she said: “We have to pick up the pace. I think we have to own that.”

Vol. 28, Issue 14

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