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ECS Education Forum Spotlights Policy Fault Lines

By Alyson Klein — August 20, 2010 3 min read
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State education policymakers gathered here for a conference last week outlined many of the same challenges as they look ahead to their 2011 legislative sessions, including the question of how far they want to go in supporting a new set of uniform academic standards, and finding ways to cope with a continuing fiscal squeeze.

But lawmakers from around the country taking part in a panel discussion at the Education Commission of the States’ annual policy forum were sharply divided on how to tackle those issues.

For instance, while at least 37 states had endorsed the benchmarks developed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative as of late last week, legislators from some other states were skeptical of the effort, which was led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

And state policy leaders also disagreed about whether the $4 billion federal Race to the Top competition—the Obama administration’s signature K-12 initiative—is the right vehicle for reshaping national education policy.

One Republican leader in particular said during the panel that he’s worried about the expansion of the federal role in education.

“With few exceptions, most of the things that the federal government runs, it screws up,” said Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who is often mentioned as a possible 2012 gop presidential contender. “I don’t like the federalization of education policy.”

Mr. Pawlenty said that his state elected not to sign on to the mathematics portion of the common standards, in part because expertsdecided that they were not as rigorous as the state’s current expectations.

But state Rep. James Roebuck, a Democrat and the chairman of the Pennsylvania House education committee, said that he “supports the common core” in part because it will provide continuity for students who move from one state or district to another and will ensure that students are held to rigorous expectations.

However, state Sen. Florence Shapiro, a Republican who chairs the education committee of the Texas Senate, questioned the Obama administration’s policy approach. She said she’s particularly concerned about Race to the Top, which gave an edge to states that adopted common standards.

Prodding the States

Like Gov. Pawlenty, Sen. Shapiro is worried about what she sees as an expanding role for the federal government in K-12 policy. She said it’s a challenge for her to grasp the needs and priorities of the many districts in her state, so she has trouble understanding how the federal government would be able to do it.

“I cannot begin to understand how the federal government has a better handle on [what is going on in] school districts than I do,” said Sen. Shapiro. “The best education is the closest to the students,” she said, and the worst is the furthest away.

“And I believe Race to the Top is as far away as you can get,” she added.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has used the discretionary-grant competition to prod states to adopt more rigorous, uniform standards, revamp teacher tenure, andexpand charter schools, among other policies. Delaware and Tennessee were winners in the first round of the competition, and 36 states submitted applications for the $3.4 billion in grant money left in the second round, in which 18 states and the District of Columbia were finalists. (“Race to Top Finalists Prepare for Last Pitch,” Aug. 11, 2010.)

Texas was one of only two states that chose not to collaborate on the early stages of the common-standards initiative, and it did not participate in the Race to the Top.

All the policymakers on the panel—and those from nearly all states—are preparing to grapple with yawning budget deficits in their coming legislative sessions. But when policymakers were asked whether the panelists would rather face a lean budget session, or a considerable surplus, the answers differed sharply.

“Crisis equals opportunity,” Sen. Shapiro said. When cuts have to be made, she said, “we have a chance to drill down and find those areas where we’re not getting the bang for the buck that we thought we would. … When there’s lots of money, everybody has their hand out.

“We add and we add and we add programs that we really don’t need.”

During a fiscal crunch, Sen. Shapiro said, lawmakers can work to “make sure the good programs” are the ones that survive.

But not everyone agreed. “I’d rather have more money,” Rep. Roebuck said flatly. In recent, better times, Pennsylvania has been able to invest in some promising programs, including early-childhood education, he said.

“It makes it difficult when you’re … cutting and cutting,” he said, “and then [find] that you still don’t have money.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 25, 2010 edition of Education Week as ECS Education Forum Spotlights National Policy Fault Lines

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