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State Lawmakers Warn of Federal Intrusion on Education

By Lesli A. Maxwell — February 09, 2010 6 min read
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State lawmakers want Washington policymakers to back off when it comes to public schools.

Amid fanfare around the billions of dollars being delivered to schools through the federal economic-stimulus package, members of the National Conference of State Legislatures are warning that the education agenda being pushed by the Obama administration is shaping up to be just as prescriptive and intrusive as the 8-year-old No Child Left Behind Act.

The new critique, issued in a report last week, comes five years after the Denver-based NCSL assailed the federal law—the centerpiece of President George W. Bush’s education agenda—as a major encroachment on the states’ authority over K-12 education.

That view has emerged from other quarters as well, especially in recent weeks, as states rushed to rewrite laws to get a competitive edge in their applications for federal Race to the Top grants and President Barack Obama rolled out his fiscal 2011 budget plan. The budget proposal calls for an increase in spending on K-12 education, with nearly all of it directed toward the administration’s top priorities, such as improving teacher quality and overhauling low-performing schools. (“Education Budget Plan Wielded as Policy Lever,” this issue.)

“There is concern that the policies that the Obama administration is advocating are, to some extent, as intrusive as NCLB was,” said Daniel Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, the Arlington, Va.-based professional organization that represents local superintendents and other district-level administrators.

“They are effectively dangling states to jump through hoops and agree to do all the things that the federal government believes they should do,” he said.

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The warning by the state lawmakers’ group that Washington will continue to tread heavily on state and local policymaking turf echoes much of its earlier critique of the NCLB law. (“NCLB Law Needs Work, Legislators Assert,” March 2, 2005.)

The federal law’s requirements for states—such as expanding standardized testing to measure adequate yearly progress, or AYP, in reading and math, and meting out rewards and penalties for schools based on student performance—have simply been followed by other, mostly unproven approaches in the programs put forth by President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the lawmakers argue in the 35-page report.

States, they point out, have scrambled to rewrite laws—acting, for instance, to allow more charter schools—to be considered eligible for a share of $4 billion in federal Race to the Top grants, which are part of up to $100 billion slated for public schools under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Though participation in the Race to the Top competition is voluntary, recession-battered states are, in effect, being “coerced” by the lure of money to adopt policies that have not necessarily been shown to raise student achievement, the lawmakers contend.

“If you look at the applications, states have had to change their laws drastically without knowing whether any funding is even coming down to them,” said Robert H. Plymale, a Democratic state senator from West Virginia and a co-chairman of the NCSL task force that wrote the report.

‘Soup-Kitchen Line’

The task force, made up of 15 members of both political parties, met six times between April 2008 and July 2009 to hear from a variety of education experts. Several task force members were also involved in writing the NCSL report from 2005, which laid out changes the organization wanted made to the No Child Left Behind Act, which Mr. Bush signed into law in 2002.

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Stephen M. Saland, a Republican state senator from New York who also served as a task force co-chairman, said that if it weren’t for the recession and state treasuries that consequently are “cash starved,” it’s unlikely that all but 10 states would have applied for the first round of Race to the Top money.

“For them, it’s like standing in a soup-kitchen line desperate for sustenance,” said Mr. Saland, whose state was among the 40 that applied for the grants by the Jan. 19 deadline.

And although the Obama administration’s school improvement priorities differ from those outlined in the NCLB law, the approach is really the same, the state lawmakers argue. The main areas being emphasized now are teacher quality, adopting common standards and assessments, data systems and the use of data, and turning around the lowest-performing schools.

“This is still the federal government picking what they see as winning strategies and telling states, ‘You should do this, do this, and do this,’ ” said Mr. Saland. “It’s still process- and compliance-driven.”

The states have a legitimate complaint about how NCLB imposed rigid requirements and forced many of them to scrap their homegrown school accountability systems, said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research group. And so far, the administration hasn’t revealed to state and local education leaders exactly how it plans to tweak the law as it pursues renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The NCLB law is the latest version of the ESEA.

“So far, I think they’ve created the impression that they are just layering new requirements on top of the old ones,” Mr. Jennings, a former education committee aide to House Democrats, said of Obama administration officials.

At the same time, he said, “we wouldn’t be having this debate about whether the federal government is too intrusive if there was a feeling that public schools were doing well.

“We’ve had four presidents in a row, two Democrats and two Republicans, who’ve had a pretty consistent message on this,” he said. “I don’t think the states have taken into account the national concern about moving faster to improve public schools.”

Marvin W. Lucas, a Democratic state representative from North Carolina who is a member of the NCSL task force, agrees that the federal imprint on K-12 policy has grown too large, especially under the requirements of the NCLB law. But he is more optimistic than some of his colleagues about the impact of the Obama administration’s agenda.

“We still don’t know a lot about what they are going to do in [the ESEA reauthorization], but if they are already talking about getting rid of [adequate yearly progress], then that’s a move in the right direction,” said Mr. Lucas, a retired principal who chairs the House education committee in the North Carolina legislature.

The NCSL report argues that the federal government should leave the bulk of K-12 policymaking to the states and to districts, but it does call for the U.S. Department of Education to ramp up funding for the very disadvantaged and those with disabilities.

The federal government is spending only slightly more than 7 cents out of every public dollar invested in K-12 education (which does not take into account the one-time funds provided to schools through the economic-stimulus package), according to the NCSL. According to 2006-07 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the federal contribution was slightly higher, at 8.5 percent.

Given the limited federal share, Washington’s stamp on policy should be in balance, Mr. Saland said. “That’s a disproportionate influence by a player that has the least financial stake in the outcome,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as State Lawmakers Warn of Federal Intrusion

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