Federal

Chiefs Sense a New Attitude In Meeting With Bush

By David J. Hoff — March 31, 2004 3 min read
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The chief school officers of 35 states are predicting their relationship with President Bush’s administration will improve after a two-hour White House meeting with the president and his top domestic-policy aides last week.

The state education leaders said the amount of time the president spent with them on March 23 and the tenor of the conversation were dramatically different from previous encounters. Mr. Bush and his advisers appeared receptive to exploring new ways to give states leeway in implementing the administration’s K-12 agenda and promised to tone down some of the political rhetoric that has crept into the debate over the No Child Left Behind Act.

“It was a dialogue, as opposed to a one-way message,” said Valerie Woodruff, Delaware’s secretary of education, comparing last week’s meeting with earlier ones.

“It was a give-and-take situation,” said Ted Stilwill, the director of the Iowa Department of Education and the president of the council. “We were having a real impact on that conversation.”

Mr. Stilwill and Ms. Woodruff said administration officials listened carefully to the chiefs’ concerns that recent announcements to give states flexibility in carrying out the federal law haven’t gone far enough.

“There was a positive message on both ends,” said Raymond J. Simon, the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, who attended the meeting. “It was very apparent that this is of the highest priority for the president.”

Educator in Chief

Last week’s session was a part of the CCSSO’s annual spring meeting in Washington. The group’s members originally were slated to meet with Margaret Spellings, the president’s top domestic-policy adviser; David Dunn, her deputy who was recently deployed to the Education Department; and Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

But the day of the event, the agenda changed to include President Bush. The chiefs’ White House session included a speech by the president and an extended question-and- answer period with him.

The chiefs said that administration officials promised they would no longer criticize them for keeping a balance of federal funds from year to year. The administration had released summaries of how much money states had sitting in the federal treasury waiting to be spent. House Republicans highlighted the issue to counter complaints that the administration hasn’t provided enough money for the No Child Left Behind Act.

It’s “inaccurate and unfair” to characterize the money as unspent because federal rules require states to let the money trickle out to districts, said Michael E. Ward, North Carolina’s state superintendent.

He said he was encouraged that the rhetoric may be toned down, because it’s a debate “that can escalate into a very adversarial issue.”

The debate has been highly charged politically because the administration is highlighting the No Child Left Behind law as one of its chief domestic accomplishments.

“They know they can’t succeed unless the chiefs are buying into this and doing the heavy lifting,” said Thomas Houlihan, the executive director of the CCSSO.

Separately last week, 14 chief state school officers asked the Education Department for permission to change their states’ accountability systems under the federal law to reward schools for growth in student achievement, even if they don’t reach the goal of all students’ achieving proficiency in reading and mathematics by 2014.

“We find [the law’s] requirement that all schools show ‘adequate yearly progress’ by reaching a single bar—the status-bar model—has had the unintended effect of penalizing those thriving systems,” the chiefs from California and 13 other states wrote in a letter to Mr. Paige.

Staff Writer Michelle R. Davis contributed to this report.

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