Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings knew she had a tough sell in pitching the Bush administration’s proposals to expand charter schools and establish private school vouchers when she addressed a national gathering of school board members here last week.
“I know you’re not going to like that part,” she said, as the crowd, which had been listening politely to her speech, began to murmur its disapproval. “But we simply have to do something in these chronic cases” of schools that continue to struggle academically.
Audience members at the National School Boards Association’s annual federal relations conference began chanting their own recommendations for helping such schools.
“Fund it! Fund it!” a cluster of school board members said in unison, referring to the 5-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, which is slated for reauthorization this year. The measure has been criticized by state and local education officials as having failed to deliver enough resources to schools to bolster student achievement, while others praise its focus on accountability.
The reaction to Secretary Spellings’ Jan. 29 speech to the NSBA session, in which she provided details on the Bush administration’s proposals for overhauling the law, underscored the chasm between the administration’s calls for expanded school choice and additional charter schools, on the one hand, and the additional money and revisions to the method for calculating schools’ adequate yearly progress sought by some NSBA members.
“You cannot take public money. That’s not fair to public school students,” said Roseanne Sullivan, a board member of the 6,200-student Pine Bush Central School District in Circleville, N.Y., referring to the administration’s proposal to allow low-income students in struggling schools to use federally funded vouchers to attend private schools.
“Depleting our resources [like that] is going to hurt our chances for success. It’s a setup,” Ms. Sullivan said.
The NCLB law, an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, requires schools to test students in reading and mathematics annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Schools must meet annual targets for the number of students scoring at or above “proficient” on those tests in order to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the law. Schools must report results both for specific subgroups of students and the student population as a whole. Those that fail to make AYP two or more years in a row are subject to increasingly serious sanctions.
Last month, the Department of Education unveiled its plan for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act. Under the proposal, schools deemed in need of improvement under the law would be permitted to restructure as charter schools, even if that would violate state caps on the number of charters allowed. The plan also calls for the creation of a “scholarship” that would allow low-income students in struggling schools to attend a private school with some federal dollars. (“Bush Offers ‘Blueprint’ for NCLB,” Jan. 31, 2007.)
Reaction to Kennedy
Despite widespread opposition to the federal voucher proposal, some school board members were happy to hear Ms. Spellings, who once worked as a lobbyist for the Texas School Boards Association, call for expanding so-called growth models under the NCLB law. Such models allow schools to get credit for improving individual student achievement year to year, rather than only by meeting proficiency targets for the student population as a whole as well as for certain subgroups, such as minority-group members, students with disabilities, and English-language learners.
“I was grateful that she seemed open to a growth model,” said Suzanne Kitchens, a board member of the 7,350-student Pleasant Valley district in Camarillo, Calif. She said that growth models give schools an opportunity to demonstrate gains for all students, including those who are already performing above proficiency.
But most of the 1,000 school board members here seemed to pin most of their hopes for reauthorization of the law on members of Congress, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Speaking to the group a few hours before Secretary Spellings, Sen. Kennedy called for more federal dollars to train teachers and improve student assessments, even as he pointed to what he said was the law’s progress in improving achievement.
Sen. Kennedy said schools that fail to meet AYP should be given more time to implement their improvement plans before aggressive sanctions kick in.
“Our goal is new investment, not punitive policies,” he said.
But some were wary of Mr. Kennedy’s promises.
“It sounds like we have support from him, but we still haven’t heard where the money is coming from,” said Timothy R. Sivertson, the board president of the 1,000-student Elk Mound district in Elk Mound, Wis.
Funding for Title I grants to states, the main aid program under the No Child Left Behind Act, was $12.7 billion in fiscal 2006. Financing for Title I is some $30 billion short of the levels authorized for fiscal years 2002 through 2006.
Rep. Young’s Measure
On Jan. 30, NSBA members descended on Capitol Hill, with instructions from the association’s leadership to urge their representatives in the House to co-sponsor a bill introduced by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, that includes language that would offer schools greater flexibility in calculating AYP and carrying out other aspects of the law.
Among other provisions, the measure calls for schools to be considered as not making AYP only if they did not meet achievement targets for the same subgroup two years in a row. Right now, a school could miss only its target for English-language learners one year, and then miss only its target for low-income students the next, and would not make AYP.
Rep. Young and Sen. Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho, introduced similar bills during the 109th Congress, but neither measure progressed far in the legislative process.
The NSBA’S wish list for the No Child Left Behind reauthorization includes both the changes in Rep. Young’s bill and additional money for training teachers, developing assessments, and other activities such as those Sen. Kennedy outlined.
“We need both,” Reginald M. Felton, the director of federal relations for the Alexandria, Va.-based NSBA, said in an interview. But he added: “Whether or not we get the money, we need the changes.”
In response to a question from the audience during her talk to the group, Secretary Spellings said she had not yet read Rep. Young’s bill. But she warned the gathering not to expect Sen. Kennedy and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, to provide significant leeway for states and schools in calculating AYP under a reauthorized law.
“They are as hawkish, or more hawkish, than I am” on the importance of measuring school’s progress, she said. Both lawmakers, who worked closely with the Bush administration in crafting the NCLB law, have said that they want to keep the major principles of the law in place, including AYP and reporting for separate subgroups,.
Despite the NSBA’S lobbying blitz in support of Rep. Young’s bill, it appears unlikely for now that the measure will gain much traction, although individual provisions could be incorporated into a broader reauthorization bill if they garner support.
Talking to reporters after his own speech to the conference, Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, quickly dismissed the Young bill, saying there simply isn’t enough support for the measure.
“The changes are not going to go anywhere near what Mr. Young has proposed,” Rep. Kildee said.
A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2007 edition of Education Week as School Board Members Hit D.C. to Weigh In on NCLB