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Senate Panel Examines Ed. Department Efforts To Enforce New ESEA

By Erik W. Robelen — May 01, 2002 3 min read
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If a Senate committee hearing last week was any indication, the congressional authors of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 will be keeping close tabs on the Department of Education’s efforts to translate the law into practice.

Senators questioned—and sometimes lectured—two top agency officials about the implementation on April 23. The lawmakers aired concerns with how the federal agency has interpreted provisions on testing and what kinds of reading programs can be supported with federal aid under a new K-3 reading initiative.

Democrats, in particular, also complained about the department’s budget request for fiscal 2003, arguing that it won’t be enough to help schools reach the ambitious goal suggested in the law’s title.

“No matter what the law says, it will make a difference to students, parents, and communities only if it is implemented well,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. He said he wants to hold hearings on efforts to carry out the law, which reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, every six to seven weeks.

Mr. Kennedy and other senators, including Republican Susan Collins of Maine, said they’re worried the agency is sending signals that it might not pay for certain popular reading programs emphasizing small-group instruction or one-on-one tutoring. Department officials said they would not necessarily exclude any particular program so long as it’s part of a comprehensive reading program that meets federal criteria. (“States Unclear on ESEA Rules About Reading,” this issue.)

The hearing, as well as competing letters sent recently to Secretary of Education Rod Paige by Democratic and Republican senators, revealed a partisan split over what Congress really meant in some areas of the law, especially assessment.

“It was our intention, those of us who went along with the increase in testing, to ensure that every state had a coherent testing system that allowed for comparisons between school districts,” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said at the hearing. She and five other committee Democrats wrote to Mr. Paige in March objecting to draft rules allowing the use of local assessments as part of a state’s mix to comply with the requirement for annual statewide testing each year in grades 3-8.

“I don’t know why we’re going down this road to start with,” Sen. Clinton said.

But Sen. Collins said she’s pleased with the route the department is taking.

“I know you’re getting conflicting letters from members of this committee,” she said. “I want to emphasize my belief that you are doing the right thing by not mandating a single, statewide assessment test, but rather allowing states to have ... flexibility.”

Five other Republicans joined her in signing an April 11 letter to Secretary Paige making that point. Ms. Collins suggested that Maine prefers to use a combination of state and local tests to meet the federal requirements.

Multiple Pathways

Department officials emphasized that the agency would insist on a high bar for allowing states to use local tests, but said it was important to give states as much leeway as possible.

“Rather than say to all the 50 states, it’s our way or the highway, we have all the answers on this, we’re saying this is what we’re looking for, this is the goal we have in mind,” said Undersecretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok. “If you can reach this goal using your strategy, make your case.

“We think it’s going to be much tougher to do it on a local- assessment basis, but we’re not going to say that we have the corner of wisdom on this.”

Democratic lawmakers criticized President Bush’s budget request for the Education Department for fiscal 2003, which begins Oct. 1, saying it’s not enough to meet the law’s expectations for students. Mr. Bush has proposed to spend $50.3 billion in discretionary dollars, an increase of $1.4 billion over fiscal 2002, which began last Oct. 1.

Mr. Hickok said the proposed 2.8 percent increase in the budget reflected two major considerations: “It’s a wartime budget, and it’s a responsible approach to funding education.”

“I will tell you that it is a wartime in our classrooms,” replied Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “My state is in a severe budget crisis right now. ... Kids are being asked to do an awful lot without the resources behind it. That’s our responsibility. We’re failing these kids.”

Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., asked Mr. Hickok what to expect under provisions in the law requiring failing schools to offer public school choice and allow parents to select supplemental services for their children using federal aid. Mr. Hickok estimated that in the 2002-03 school year, 3,000 to 5,000 schools would likely fall in one or both of those categories.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2002 edition of Education Week as Senate Panel Examines Ed. Department Efforts To Enforce New ESEA

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