Federal

Department Questioned On ESEA Guidance

By Bess Keller — January 21, 2004 4 min read
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Washington

Key congressional Democrats are complaining about the Department of Education’s efforts to implement the No Child Left Behind Act. They accuse the agency of sending “confusing messages” and delaying the release of critical regulations and guidance for states and districts.

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View the accompanying chart, “Attitudes on No Child Left Behind Law.”

The Democrats also cite instances in which they believe the department has undermined “the letter” of the federal law.

"[T]he potential of the act has yet to be realized in large numbers of communities because of the failure to properly implement and fund the law,” the 10 lawmakers wrote in a letter dated Jan. 8, the second anniversary of the law that is a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

In the detailed, six-page letter, the Democrats outline a host of concerns with the department’s efforts. The department had not responded to a request for comment as of late last week.

The lawmakers express disappointment with what they call the department’s delay in issuing regulations and guidance.

“Too often, states and school districts have been left without appropriate guidance,” they write. “As a result, misinformation and speculation are rife in local school districts and are contributing to their reluctance to implement the act’s provisions.”

According to the lawmakers, the Education Department has provided “inadequate” technical assistance and information to states on plans for implementation and applications for funding.

They also charge that the department has sent “confusing messages ... about what revisions and changes to [state accountability] plans are deemed acceptable or unacceptable by the department, including revisions in adequate yearly progress, assessments, and the composition and size of subgroups under the law.”

They urge the agency to adopt a formal process for amending state accountability plans. And they call for greater openness from the department.

“We also urge you to provide a more open exchange of information to the public, including the disclosure of details in implementation plans, applications, and policy letters,” they write.

The Democrats point out instances in which they contend the department has undermined the letter of the law, such as the agency’s implementation of requirements related to dropout rates and the guarantee of a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom.

All nine Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee signed the letter, as did Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Department’s Memo

A few of their points appear to echo concerns expressed in a letter the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers sent Dec. 30 to the White House.

The chiefs’ letter suggests making more widely available guidance letters the department sends to individual states, and developing a formal process for amending state accountability plans under the No Child Left Behind law.

Last week, the Education Department issued a 10-page memo outlining the flexibility allowed in the No Child Left Behind Act.

“As evidenced by the diversity among the approved state accountability plans and state-consolidated applications, states have great flexibility in the design of their systems and implementation of particular No Child Left Behind provisions,” the memo says. The department identifies a list of “almost 40 separate issues under the control and responsibility of state and local education agencies,” such as standards and assessments.

The Education Department and congressional Republicans, meanwhile, have stepped up their defense against complaints that states have been shortchanged on federal aid to meet No Child Left Behind Act mandates (“Debate Flares Regarding Aid Given to States,” this issue.)

New Poll on Law

In another development in the debate over the ambitious federal law, the National Education Association last week released a survey showing strong support for the law’s accountability measures, but uncertainty about its effects.

The telephone survey of 1,005 registered voters took place on Jan. 4-7 and has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

The survey found that 63 percent of respondents believe that the federal government should spend more on education. There was evidence of growing optimism about the public schools: Seventy-three percent of those surveyed said the schools were at least starting to improve, up 9 percentage points from a similar survey last year. Half the respondents had a positive view of schools this year, compared with just over one-third last year.

Despite support for federal involvement in education, 43 percent said they knew little or nothing about the law. Of those who had formed impressions of its impact, 37 percent viewed the effects as positive, and 21 percent as negative. The proportion of those with positive views increased to more than half after they heard a summary of the law.

On the other hand, of those who said they knew “a lot” about the act, 42 percent were positive before hearing the summary and just 36 percent after hearing it.

Acting Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok seized on the increase from last year in the percentage of those who said schools were “in good shape.”

"[It] shows that something is new and different about education in America today,” he said in a press release. “That something is the No Child Left Behind Act.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2004 edition of Education Week as Department Questioned On ESEA Guidance

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