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Federal

Schools Chiefs Give Duncan Earful on ESEA, Race to Top, Standards

By Lesli A. Maxwell — March 30, 2010 5 min read
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Even as they posed tough questions about government flexibility on overhauling low-performing schools and the disadvantages of having to compete for federal dollars, the states’ top education officials expressed broad support last week for how the Obama administration aims to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and offered their own ideas for how to renew the law.

“I think we’re off to a very compatible start,” Joseph Morton, Alabama’s state superintendent said at the annual legislative conference of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “When we get down to details is when we’ll know for sure how compatible we are.”

Susan Gendron, the education commissioner in Maine and the president of the CCSSO, said that the chiefs do have “a concern about mandating the right solution,” and that “innovation and flexibility” are essential to the debate over rewriting the ESEA, now known as the No Child Left Behind Act.

State School Chiefs' Blueprint

The Council of Chief State School Officers released an 11-page document that outlines broad principles and makes specific legislative recommendations to Congress on how to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It calls for a reauthorized law to:

• Encourage states to develop new policy models in assessment, accountability, supports and interventions, and teacher effectiveness

• Establish broader categories of funding and give states flexibility to consolidate and coordinate programs

• Increase investments in research, evaluation, and spreading of best practices

• Base accountability primarily on school improvement and student progress over time

• Make the state longitudinal data systems competitive grant program a formula program

• Create a new literacy initiative formula program that spans birth through graduation

SOURCE: Council of Chief State School Officers

In an an 11-page policy statement it released March 23, CCSSO calls for a new ESEA that “sets goals and criteria in core policy areas but encourages sound state policy innovation,” and, more specifically, suggests that states “be encouraged to develop and submit new policy models in assessment, accountability, supports and interventions, teacher effectiveness, etc.”

Among the other 18 specific recommendations, the council asks for “broader buckets of funding streams” that would allow states to consolidate programs as they see fit and, in particular, break down barriers between early childhood, K-12, and higher education programs. It also calls for more federal investment in research and evaluation, as well as spreading knowledge about effective practices across the states and for shifting the state longitudinal-data-systems competitive-grant program to a formula program.

But in an hourlong session last week with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the chiefs weren’t focused only on the details of reauthorizing the ESEA.

Among their topics: the $4 billion Race to the Top competition, states’ momentum toward adoption of common academic standards, and the challenges for rural states in turning around their lowest-performing schools through methods mandated as a condition of receiving billions of dollars in Title I school improvement grants.

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The needs of rural states prompted especially lively discussion. “The frontier is really where we are,” said Denise Juneau, Montana’s state superintendent. “We are more rural than rural.”

Ms. Juneau emphasized that even the so-called transformation model, which is less drastic than the three other turnaround models that the U.S. Department of Education has said are acceptable, won’t work in her state because the approach requires the principals to be replaced. The five schools that Montana has identified as the lowest-performing are all located on isolated American Indian reservations, she said.

Even if those districts could find strong principals to replace the existing ones, Ms. Juneau said, there are more fundamental challenges, such as where they would stay, she said.

“We lack housing,” she told the secretary. “If we want to get a turnaround specialist in these places, we may not even be able to buy a double-wide trailer for them.”

But Mr. Duncan would not concede that rural states can’t use the transformation model successfully. He said the Education Department is trying to help by giving rural states a competitive advantage in applying for some of the $650 million in Investing in Innovation, or i3, stimulus grants, and stressed that “we are going to fund, not where there’s a capacity to write a grant, but where there’s a capacity to help kids.”

The secretary also said that Montana would be receiving roughly $10 million in school improvement money for the five schools it identified as low-performing. “Think about the resources you will have for those five schools,” he said.

Seeking Flexibility

Patricia I. Wright, the state superintendent in Virginia, asked the secretary if the department would offer the same sort of flexibility on how states develop new assessments as it has offered on the adoption of new common academic standards.

In its ESEA blueprint unveiled March 13, the Obama administration said that state officials could adopt either the common-core standards—the initiative led by the National Governors Association and the CCSSO—or devise their own “college- and career-ready standards” in partnership with colleges and universities in their states.

“We’d like to see the same flexibility on assessments,” Ms. Wright said.

Mr. Morton, the Alabama chief, provided one of the livelier exchanges when he asked Mr. Duncan to spell out, explicitly, the importance of having a charter school law in order to win a piece of Race to the Top money. Alabama does not have a charter law, and lawmakers there recently rejected a bill that Mr. Morton and Gov. Bob Riley fought hard to pass.

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Mr. Morton recalled the secretary saying at a meeting at the Hunt Institute in North Carolina that states without charter laws, “need not apply” for Race to the Top. Then, earlier this month, the Alabama Education Association sent out a letter saying that Mr. Duncan told union leaders in a private meeting that he didn’t care about charter schools, according to the Alabama chief.

“Do we have to have charter schools?” Mr. Morton asked. “We tried, we failed. I don’t want to start a race 8 percent behind the other states,” he said, referring to the 40 points out of a total of 500 that states can garner in Race to the Top if their policies are deemed to be friendly to charter schools.

Mr. Duncan acknowledged that states without charter laws are at a competitive disadvantage, but, as he usually does, insisted that his message on charter schools has not changed.

“I don’t support charter schools, I support good charter schools,” he said. “There are communities in Alabama that need better options.”

In an earlier session on the administration’s proposed fiscal 2011 budget for education with Roberto Rodriquez, from the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, and Robert Gordon, from the Office of Management and Budget, Mark K. McQuillan, Connecticut’s education commissioner, said he believes that Race to the Top could end up resulting in “bad policy.”

By competing at least twice for Race to the Top money—and possibly a third time, should Congress approve the Obama administration’s proposal to include $1.35 billion for another round in the fiscal 2011 budget—states must expend political capital and financial resources that are in short supply, he said.

“If you are going to sit and push states in this direction with no results, I think this is potentially bad policy,” Mr. McQuillan said. “You could be taking state agencies through this process three or four times with no outcome.”

Mr. Rodriguez told the chiefs that “it is not lost on us the amount of energy, political capital, human capital, and financial capital” that the states have invested in competing for a piece of the prize.

A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week as Schools Chiefs Give Duncan Earful on ESEA, Race to Top, Standards

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