With their purses empty and the nation poised for a likely war, the state governors came to the snowy nation’s capital last week to talk about education, child care, and, most of all, how to dig themselves out of their worst economic crisis in decades.
The governors, in Washington for the National Governors Association’s winter meeting, met twice with President Bush and urged the former Texas governor to provide some relief, particularly to help pay for new federal education mandates.
Governors approved a resolution Feb. 25 that asked the president and Congress for an unspecified amount of economic aid. Many states have made midyear budget cuts, and many face shortfalls in the coming fiscal year—which could affect schools even more severely than the fiscal constraints so far. (“States Brace for Tough New Year,” Jan. 8, 2003.)
President Bush responded that the nation was facing a budget deficit and possible war. He promised to work with state leaders, but made no promises.
The 24 new governors who took office this year also increased the total number of Democrats to 24 governors’ seats, up from 21, giving them a bigger voice in the group. As a result, debate along party lines seemed to rise a notch. Republicans blocked a Democratic-led resolution on Feb. 24 that would have called for billions of dollars in specific funding for education and more.
Most governors agreed that the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 had focused their states on education. Their opinions diverged a little when talk turned to the specifics of the law and how to meet its requirements.
Similarly, they seemed to support the call at the meeting by filmmaker and children’s advocate Rob Reiner for all states to begin or expand early-childhood programs. Debate centered, instead, on how to set up, and pay for, strong preschool and childcare programs.
Secretary of Education Rod Paige and his staff held a two-hour, closed-door session with the governors on the No Child Left Behind law.
After that meeting, Republicans praised new federal funding for education that they say is bolstering state efforts, and used the gathering to press for what they see as reforms of the federal Head Start program.
Democrats said they were generally on board with the intent of the No Child Left Behind law, but still have questions about paying for stiff new requirements on teacher quality, test-score gains, school choice, and more.
Gov. Paul Patton of Kentucky, a Democrat who is this year’s NGA chairman, said most governors agree with 95 percent of the federal law, a revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and believe they can make it work. “It’s that last 5 percent we’re going to have fundamental differences about,” he said.
Gov. John G. Rowland of Connecticut praised what he said was the Bush administration’s support for federal education spending.
“This is a good deal all day long for us,” added Gov. Rowland, the most senior of the current Republican governors. “We don’t want to be dictated to. We do want accountability and flexibility.”
Gov. Frank L. O’Bannon of Indiana, a Democrat, said states were still working through details of the law, even though his state was one of the first to have its accountability plan approved by federal officials. (“Ed. Dept. OKs First Accountability Plans,” Jan. 15, 2003.)
Federal officials said they were doing what they could to provide flexibility under the law for reasonable state efforts, and were mindful of the states’ budget woes.
“We’re very sensitive to the economic conditions,” Secretary Paige said. “That’s why we think the president has been very ... helpful to the states.”
An Early Start
Also at the meeting, Gov. Patton of Kentucky moderated an extensive discussion on early-childhood programs. He said the evidence is undeniable that strong preschool programs can make for better-educated students, and therefore help reduce crime rates and prison populations.
“It’s about the most important investment you can make,” he told his colleagues.
Mr. Reiner implored governors to do more for early-childhood education. He argued that even during tight budget times, the planning for new or expanded early-childhood programs could begin.
“It doesn’t cost a lot to issue planning grants,” said Mr. Reiner, who started a foundation that has won support for early-childhood programs in California. (“L.A. Panel Set to Vote on Preschool-for-All Plan,” July 10, 2002.)
Craig T. Ramey, a professor of health studies at Georgetown University, reviewed his research on brain development and the impact of early-childhood learning. He showed the governors how study after study has linked high student performance with early-age learning, and emphasized that school-based programs of good quality can make a tremendous difference.
Governors wondered how they might create or expand strong programs without a lot of extra money.
“No one can avoid a false start” on developing early-childhood programs, “and yet this is critical,” said Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a Republican first-termer, added that early-care programs of real quality would be costly and difficult to push through legislatures when the economy is down.
“For some folks who are governors— who are broke—that’s a high bar” to reach, he said.
Mr. Ramey said that establishing bad programs would accomplish nothing, but warned against inaction. “Not providing it, it seems to me, is not a very good option,” he said.