Federal

Governors Skirt Education Issues at Summer Meeting

By Michele McNeil — July 15, 2008 4 min read
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As the nation’s governors wrapped up their summer meeting today in Philadelphia amid this pivotal election year, education issues—including teacher quality and the federal No Child Left Behind Act—were drowned out by concerns over soaring energy prices and a weakening economy.

Yet even those worries intersected with education at the National Governors Association meeting July 11-14, which drew about half of the state’s chief executives.

Robert A. Malone, the chairman and president of major oil company BP America, Inc., reminded the governors during a Sunday session that high gas prices were forcing school districts to cut back on transportation costs by consolidating bus routes, and making more students walk to school.

Mr. Malone urged the governors to support more offshore drilling to increase production, and to support the energy companies as they pursue alternatives, such as wind and solar energy.

In addition, the NGA is closely watching the rising cost of school lunches due to high commodity prices, said Joan E. Wodiska, the director of the NGA’s education committee. She said the federal program that picks up the most or all of the breakfast and lunch tab for children of low-income families isn’t keeping up with the cost of food.

“This is creating a huge funding gap,” she said, adding that this is soon to become a big issue for state budgets, which are being squeezed by a slowing economy.

Still, at an annual meeting that was largely celebratory in honor of NGA’s 100th anniversary, education policy was not as prominent a topic as it had been in some previous years.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano focused on innovation in education and the workforce during her tenure in 2006-07. Redesigning the American high school was the focus in 2004-05, when then-Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, was chairman.

This year’s outgoing Chairman Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota’s Republican governor, had made energy his initiative. New chairman Ed Rendell, the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, will focus on improving the nation’s infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and sewers.

Discussion Sparsely Attended

At a meeting of the group’s education committee, only three of 14 governors who serve on the panel—Govs. John Baldacci of Maine and Brad Henry of Oklahoma, both Democrats, and Republican Donald L. Carcieri of Rhode Island—attended for a discussion about teacher quality.

The three peppered experts in the field with questions including how to recruit the best teachers, whether national-board teacher certification is worth the time and expense, and how to increase the public’s sense of urgency about the need to improve teaching quality and schools in general.

The experts—Timothy Daly, the president of the New York City-based New Teacher Project, Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-director of the Washington-based think tank Education Sector, and Ted Hoff, the vice president of the IBM Corp.’s Center for Learning and Development—urged the governors to make it easier for the brightest students to become teachers by offering alternative routes to certification and revamping teacher-pay structures.

Gov. Carcieri said he fears the public fails to recognize the seriousness of the teacher-quality problem.

“The public has a disconnect from the urgency that many of us on the inside see,” he lamented.

That discussion aside, the lack of time spent by the governors on education policy at their summer meeting mirrors the trend on the federal level, as education fights for traction in the presidential race, even as several groups are spending money trying to elevate the issue. (“Effort for Education as Campaign Issue Fights for Traction,” Dec. 5, 2007.)

Yet education didn’t escape the attention of former President Bill Clinton, who used a more-than hourlong address on Saturday to address a myriad of topics that warrant attention by governors, from payday lending to immigration.

A former four-term Democratic governor from Arkansas, Mr. Clinton urged the governors to devise a “substantive” proposal for changes to NCLB that emphasizes accountability. His plea was significant because the nation’s governors were largely absent from the debate when NCLB was being drafted seven years ago. (“Governors Edge Toward Position on NCLB,” March 7, 2007.)

“I respectfully suggest that the next Congress, the next administration, ought to get a substantive plan from you,” Mr. Clinton told the governors.

While the governors may be able to agree on their general support of accountability, it may be more difficult to come together on such details as how school performance should be measured, whether there should be sanctions for schools that fail to meet standards, and what form those sanctions should take.

“At least preliminarily, the governors feel they can reach consensus,” Gov. Pawlenty said when asked later about Mr. Clinton’s remarks.

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