The Obama administration’s proposal to make federal funding for disadvantaged students contingent on states’ adoption of reading and math standards that prepare students for college or a career has drawn sharp criticism from groups representing grassroots educators and state lawmakers, even as some governors and members of Congress appear open to the idea.
The proposal, which would be rolled into the administration’s still-emerging plan for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, would for the first time link the law’s flagship Title I program to a push for higher academic standards that has gained new national momentum.
It would require states to either join with their counterparts in developing rigorous, college- and career-ready standards, or work with institutions of higher education to set standards that would ensure high school graduates are ready to enter postsecondary study or the workforce.
Some advocates for local educators were quick to express their concerns about linking Title I aid for disadvantaged students to adoption of college- and career-ready standards.
The National School Boards Association released a statement Feb. 22 saying that, although the Alexandria, Va.-based organization supports voluntary, state-led efforts to craft more uniform, rigorous standards, the administration’s proposal “amounts to an unnecessary overreach by the federal government to coerce states to adopt a particular approach or be shut out of future funding for key programs.”
The plan was also blasted as federal overreaching by David Shreve, the senior education committee director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, based in Denver, who said there is no evidence that college- and career-readiness standards will lead to better student outcomes.
And the National Association of Secondary School Principals warned that the proposal could result in a loss of federal funding for students in poverty if states opt not to revamp their standards.
Governors and members of Congress, meanwhile, are taking more of a wait-and-see approach.
Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, said he’d like to see more details. Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat who is the panel’s chairman, expressed support for the general concept, although he did not comment specifically on the proposal.
Both lawmakers recently announced a bipartisan process to reauthorize the ESEA, whose current version is the 8-year-old No Child Left Behind Act. (“Committee Sets Sights on ESEA,” Feb. 24, 2010.)
“If we’re serious about education reforms that will fix our schools and prepare our kids to compete in a global economy, then we have to demand strong, rigorous academic standards for all students,” Rep. Miller said in a statement.
Rep. Kline, who has been cautious about federal intrusion into K-12 education policy in the past, said he supports efforts among states to voluntarily revamp their standards.
As for the administration’s proposal, “we’ll see what that means” once more details are worked out, Rep. Kline said in an interview. “In all of these cases, where we often get into a rub, is [who is setting the standards]. If the United States Department of Education is the one setting those standards ... then, clearly, we have some concerns.”
If adopted, the proposal would undoubtedly bolster momentum behind the Common Core State Standards Initiative, currently the highest-profile national effort to establish higher, more uniform academic standards in English/language-arts and mathematics.
So far, 48 states—all but Alaska and Texas—have signed on to the common-core project, which is being spearheaded by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. It is unclear how many states will remain on board once the voluntary standards are final, likely later this year.
Under the Obama administration’s proposal, states would not be compelled to join the NGA-CCSSO initiative to get their Title I aid. States would be allowed to work with the colleges and universities within their states to craft their own higher standards. Still being worked out are which institutions would be part of the mix.
That could prove a significant political safety valve at a time when some state legislators have voiced concern about federal encroachment on states’ education policy authority—and when 37 governorships will be on the ballots in the fall elections.
But the NSBA, which represents local school boards, also has concerns about what sort of standards might arise if states work with postsecondary education systems.
“Higher education is not monolithic in any state,” Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the group, said in an interview. She explained that most such systems include a mix of research universities, community colleges, technical schools, and other types of institutions.
“If you leave [standards] up to a nebulous higher education authority, you don’t know what you’d get,” she said. “It’s not a sure bet.”
Officials of the Obama administration took issue with the NSBA’s contention that the proposal amounts to federal coercion.
States would still be “in the driver’s seat,” said Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education. “We think every child deserves to graduate from high school college- and career-ready. Under our proposal, states can achieve that goal on their own, or join with the consortium of 48 states to adopt common-core standards.”
Still, the administration has made it clear that states that work with others to develop college- and career-readiness standards would be given priority for competitive federal aid, including $4 billion in Race to the Top Fund grants, which will reward states for adopting certain education redesign priorities.
It is unclear from the proposal just who would judge whether a state’s standards met the benchmark of “college- and career-ready.”
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told reporters after a meeting at the White House Feb. 22 that college readiness could mean that students would not need to take remedial courses when they enroll in postsecondary education. He said that there is set of “basic skills” that indicates students are ready for a range of careers, but that the administration would work with states and other stakeholders to better define them. He gave no examples.
The proposal was unveiled by President Barack Obama at the Feb. 22 White House meeting with members of the National Governors Association. During the session, governors voiced “zero” concerns about federal intrusion into state business when it came to the Title I proposal, Secretary Duncan told reporters.
“This is being led by the governors,” he said of the push for college-readiness standards. “We have to educate our way to a better economy. All of the governors understand this.”
But Mr. Shreve, of the NCSL, called it “a mistake for the federal government to get involved in picking favorite strategies that have no credible basis in research.” He added that it appears likely from the proposal that officials at the federal level would be determining whether the standards were adequate. That hasn’t worked well in the past, he said.
He also sees proposal as an example of federal overreach. “You’d think they’d have learned their lesson with NCLB,” he said.
Others worry about the impact such a change could have on funding for underprivileged students.
Gerald N. Tirozzi, the executive director of the secondary school principals’ group, said that he shares the administration’s view that states should prepare students for college or a career. But he’s not sure that Title I grants to districts are the right vehicle.
“If you look at the history of Title I, it’s always been intended for the poorest kids and the kids with the greatest need,” he said. “We strongly encourage [the Education Department] to play the carrot and not the stick role,” in pushing for higher standards.
Signaled in Budget
The administration hinted at the proposal in its fiscal 2011 budget request for Title I grants for districts.
The Title I program would be rebranded “College and Career Ready Students” and financed at $14.5 billion in fiscal 2011, not including money provided under the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic-stimulus program.
The Title I program is the main vehicle for implementing the NCLB law. Under that legislation, which President George W. Bush signed into law in 2002, states must agree to establish accountability systems in order to tap Title I funding. They must test students in reading and math annually in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school.
President Obama proposed level funding for Title I in fiscal 2011.
Some governors said after the White House meeting that they were still studying the proposal to make Title I money contingent on adopting college- and career-ready standards.
“Some of the people who spoke most glowingly about the president’s leadership on education were Republican governors,” including Gov. Sonny Purdue of Georgia, said Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, a Democrat. “There’s was a pretty broad consensus [on education]. ... There was none of the sort of parochial throw-down, ‘Don’t tell us what our standards should be.’ ”
Mr. O’Malley said most governors are aware that their students are competing in a global economy and will need to be prepared accordingly.
But Gov. Jim Douglas of Vermont, a Republican and the chairman of the governors’ association, said that while he understood that the nation needs to be more globally competitive, he was still studying the administration’s Title I proposal.
He stopped short of saying his state would definitely adopt the common-core standards being drafted by the NGA and the CCSSO. He also said he didn’t know yet just how many of the 48 states that signed on to the common-core initiative would, ultimately, ratify the proposed standards once they become final.
In response to questions, Gov. Douglas said that federalism will always be a concern when dealing with any state-federal issue.
“Our pitch ... on anything is flexibility,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2010 edition of Education Week