Federal

Chiefs’ Group, Federal Department on Better Terms

By David J. Hoff — April 26, 2005 4 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings arrived early enough to have breakfast with the nation’s top state school officials during their recent gathering here. She walked through the room, meeting some for the first time and engaging in chit-chat with all, attendees recall.

Ms. Spellings later that day sat in the hot seat for a 90-minute session with the group. She took difficult questions from chiefs frustrated by implementing the Bush administration’s K-12 agenda, as well as compliments from others for her willingness to give them some leniency on federal rules, according to those attending the April 19 session, which was closed to reporters.

At several points, the session was punctuated by laughter that could be heard in the hallway by those left out of the proceedings.

The tenor of Ms. Spellings’ appearance at the annual legislative conference of the Council of Chief State School Officers demonstrates the close relationship that is emerging between the new secretary and the Washington-based group.

Ms. Spellings and her aides “see the chiefs as their true partners to make [federal education law] work,” said G. Thomas Houlihan, the CCSSO’s executive director.

So much of the task of implementing the 3-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. Houlihan said, “has to flow through the state education agency.”

Too Close?

The close relationship is important, say state officials. Even those who have differed with Ms. Spellings over implementation of the law say the CCSSO is representing their interests by establishing a close rapport with the secretary and her staff.

“It opens the door to access in a way that might not be available otherwise,” said Betty J. Sternberg, Connecticut’s education chief, who has sparred with Ms. Spellings in recent weeks. (“Union, States Wage Frontal Attack on NCLB,” this issue.)

Some, however, suggest that the CCSSO may be getting too chummy with the administration.

“They’ve gone out of their way to be on the right side of the department,” said David L. Shreve, a lobbyist for the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

In particular, some say, the CCSSO’s decision to hire two former administration officials as consultants establishes a link that’s too close for comfort.

Those one-time administration officials are Sandy Kress, a former White House aide who worked closely with Congress when it approved the No Child Left Behind law, and Beth Ann Bryan, a senior adviser to Secretary Spellings’ predecessor. They counsel the state chiefs’ group on specific issues related to implementation of the federal education law, Mr. Houlihan said.

For example, the CCSSO paid the two, who are now based in Austin, Texas, to gather information about states’ ability to set up value-added accountability systems, which measure individual student progress from grade to grade.

In the past year, the CCSSO has paid them a total of about $70,000 for those and other projects, Mr. Houlihan said. Neither lobbies Congress or the Education Department, he added.

“They’ve hired us based on our ability, … not because we served [in the administration] at one time or another,” Mr. Kress said.

New Attitude

The collegiality is a change from President Bush’s first term, when, Mr. Houlihan and others say, the department and the chiefs’ group were sometimes at odds.

Part of the reason for the strained relationship was the administration’s unwillingness to loosen NCLB rules because it didn’t want to dramatically change the law during President Bush’s re-election campaign, Mr. Houlihan said.

That previous dynamic also had to do with personalities, others suggest.

Former Secretary of Education Rod Paige and his deputy, Eugene W. Hickok, both rose to their federal positions after often criticizing the policies of education bureaucracies such as state education agencies, Mr. Hickok said.

Mr. Hickok acknowledged in an interview that it “was difficult at the start” to strike up relations with traditional education groups. But Ms. Spellings, he added, has decided to work closely with educators—a philosophy that dates back to her role as Mr. Bush’s education adviser when he was the governor of Texas. “To Margaret’s credit, she’s always felt that fundamental change in education won’t happen without some buy-in from those who work in education,” he said.

At the legislative conference, Ms. Spellings and Raymond J. Simon, the nominee to be her deputy, repeated their desire to be flexible in administering the No Child Left Behind law. Earlier in the month, Ms. Spellings outlined her plan for adding flexibility the law’s implementation in a speech at Mount Vernon, Va. (“States to Get New Options on NCLB Law,” April 13, 2005.)

But Mr. Simon, at the CCSSO meeting, also preached patience to the chiefs in implementing the two most important items on their agenda. Help in altering assessments for special education students will be available this summer, Mr. Simon said in a session open to reporters. A separate proposal to build state accountability plans around student academic growth is awaiting a review by a panel that the Education Department will soon convene.

Mr. Houlihan said that CCSSO members understand the delays. But, he added, what’s important is that Mr. Simon said some CCSSO members would be on the panel.

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