School & District Management

Rural States Concerned About Federal Law

By Alan Richard — October 22, 2003 4 min read
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Governors of two largely rural states have written to Secretary of Education Rod Paige seeking his support for changes in the No Child Left Behind Act and its regulations, with a goal of helping small and remote schools meet the mandates of the law.

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Read the accompanying text, “Rural Concerns.”

Gov. Judy Martz of Montana, a Republican, and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a Democrat, wrote in a joint letter dated Oct. 6 that their states need more flexibility under the law because many of their schools have tiny enrollments and special challenges.

“There’s parts of it that just can’t happen,” Kris Goss, the education adviser to Gov. Martz, said of the federal education law and its impact on rural states.

He noted, for example, the requirement that every state and school district provide a “highly qualified” teacher in every core academic classroom, meaning that teachers must hold degrees in the subjects they teach or pass exams on their subject-area knowledge.

Mr. Goss said that a majority of schools in Montana cannot meet that requirement, because teachers in smaller schools almost always teach multiple courses, and sometimes multiple grades. Failing those schools simply because of their size, or forcing schools to hire extra employees, isn’t realistic and wouldn’t necessarily improve the quality of the schools, he said.

“Without collective determination to address these problems from both the state and federal levels, Montana, New Mexico, and many other rural states will continue to experience difficulty in these crucial stages of implementation,” the two governors wrote in their letter to Mr. Paige, which they drafted after discussing it at a meeting of the Western Governors Association in September.

Fresh Criticism

The letter and other recent calls for changes in the No Child Left Behind law show that criticism over certain parts of the Bush administration’s signature education program is growing louder from some quarters across the country.

Gov. James E. McGreevey of New Jersey, a Democrat, complained in an Oct. 10 letter to Secretary Paige that many of his state’s schools had failed to meet strict test-score goals under the law because only a few students with disabilities or pupils learning to speak English didn’t meet academic standards. He wrote that many of the schools had been “falsely characterized” as failing, and he called for changes in the rules around “adequate yearly progress” on test scores and for more federal education funding.

Meanwhile, a group calling itself the Citizens for Effective Schools announced in New York City last week that more than 100 educators and public officials had signed a letter calling for changes in the law. The group includes former Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, a Republican, although he does not go along with the group’s criticisms of the law.

Gov. Martz of Montana and Gov. Richardson of New Mexico made a number of specific requests in their letter, including some changes that would require Congress to amend the law.

For example, they call on the law to be changed to provide for a waiver on teacher-quality requirements that would allow states that met national averages on the National Assessment of Educational Progress to set their own standards.

The governors’ letter also calls for:

  • More federal money for state education departments to help low-performing schools, or a more flexible timeline for schools to make adequate yearly progress on test scores if extra money isn’t available.
  • A one-year exemption from test-score requirements and more help from the federal government in determining better ways to measure student progress in small schools.
  • The federal government to contract for help with data analysis and management in smaller states.
  • Delays in corrective action against rural schools, giving them more time to meet test-score goals.

Dan Langan, a Department of Education spokesman, said last week that the agency had not yet responded to the governors’ letter, but planned to do so.

Mr. Paige understands the concerns of rural states and schools about the law, but he believes the department is offering tremendous help and doesn’t see the need for changes in the law, Mr. Langan said.

“While there are many who think the law should be opened for a variety of reasons, the secretary and the department disagree,” Mr. Langan said. “We need to give the law a chance to work.”

The Education Department has an internal task force on rural schools looking at issues related to the law, and it recently held an online forum to show how technology can help schools follow the law, he said. Mr. Langan also noted that the department has sent “teacher-assistance corps” members and others to advise state officials.

As for the governors’ request for extra federal money, Mr. Langan added: “There already is extra money available, and a lot of it.”

Mr. Goss said that Gov. Martz is pushing for more federal aid to education, but so far hasn’t taken her call for changes in the No Child Left Behind law to Capitol Hill.

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