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Chiefs Talk Stimulus and Standards With Duncan & Co.

By Alyson Klein — March 10, 2009 3 min read
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Michele is out covering the Council on Chief State School Officers meeting today, which featured a visit from President Barack Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and some top Education Department officials.

There’s lots of buzz about Obama’s speech this morning, the Department’s guidance on the economic stimulus package, and the stimulus generally.

At least one state chief, Jim Rex, in South Carolina, is worried about the backlash of some GOP govs toward the stimulus funds. Rex said that if South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford doesn’t accept the stimulus money, it could mean that the state would be ineligible for Duncan’s “Race to the Top” funds, for which both the governor and state chief must apply.

“The governor is likely not going to be very cooperative,” Mr. Rex told chiefs and Duncan. Later Rex said in an interview with Michele that he would be talking to the governor in the next couple of days to convince him South Carolina needs access to the race to the top funds.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Rex said.

State chiefs are also getting antsy about the accountability provisions on the stimulus funding, which specify that states must keep careful, detailed records on spending.

Iowa chief Judy Jeffrey talked about the “fear factor.”

“We always want to make sure we have clarity at the front end so at the back end when we are audited we have really prepared ourselves,” she said.

Education Department advisers said they will be working to pull lessons learned from the Department’s current Inspector General, and from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s experiences with disaster relief.

And Arkansas chief Ken James said the General Accountability Office has notified 16 states that they’re going to be going in and auditing them ASAP. (No word on which ones, though).

There was also considerable discussion of more uniform, rigorous standards--a major theme of President Obama’s speech today, his first major policy speech on education.

“The idea of 50 different benchmarks is not the way for us to move forward,” said Jon Schnur, who is serving as a consultant to the Obama administration. He called common standards a “national priority.” But whether it’s one set of standards, or a consortia of two or three, either way is beneficial, he said.

And Duncan made it sound like the Department is going to use the “Race to the Top” funding to prod states to develop more uniform standards.

“I don’t want 12 great proposals from 12 great states,” Duncan said. “This doesn’t change the national conversation.”

It also sounds like Duncan is worried about how the $10 billion in Title I money provided under the stimulus will be spent. “I worry about putting good money after bad,” he said.

Outgoing New York state commissioner Rick Mills said that it might be easier for 50 states to agree on a common set of standards now that the President and the Secretary of Education have put momentum behind the idea.

“If we get 25, or 20, or 15 states, people are going to see that the train is moving and say, ‘Let’s get on,’ ” he said.

Schnur also filled the group in on some details of the 150-district teacher pay plan outlined in Obama’s speech. Schnur said it will be targeted to high-needs school systems. He also said there will be “real commitment to early reading” in Obama’s fiscal year 2010 budget. (Could that be something to replace Reading First?)

And Schnur hinted that there could be changes coming to teacher quality provisions that could to offer more “transparency” to language in the stimulus that calls for highly effective teachers to be better distributed.