There were as many questions as there were good vibrations at this year’s Education Commission of the States national conference here.
Though it was rich with the usual camaraderie of state officials swapping experiences and ideas, the gathering of state education leaders July 10-12 was also marked by concerns over new federal accountability mandates and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision upholding vouchers in Cleveland.
Many officials reported a flurry of activity in their states as they prepare to meet the requirements of the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. But many of the officials have only a vague understanding of the details of the new law and are hamstrung by budget uncertainties.
“People are ready to do it—it’s a matter of getting the details worked out,” said Robert T. “Tad” Perry, the executive director of the South Dakota board of regents.
Most state leaders here had an anxious wait-and-see attitude, as they looked for the U.S. Department of Education to release guidance on the new law that, among other provisions, places new requirements on states in the areas of testing, teacher standards, and programs for students at risk of failure.
Kevin M. Noland, the deputy education commissioner for Kentucky, said he had not been able to get many answers from the federal department, particularly on teacher certification. He worries that many errors and bad decisions could be made by implementing such changes so quickly.
“When you have something this big and omnibus, and try to impose it on this sort of a timeline, it can be very confusing,” he said.
During a bull session, members of the audience were invited to voice concerns about the law, a revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. H. Pepper Sturm, a research analyst who is studying the costs of the new law for the Nevada legislature, didn’t mince words. He suggested that it could be renamed the “No State Will Have a Behind Left” Act.
But Scott Jenkins, the new chief of staff for the Education Department’s office of elementary and secondary education, said: “We want to extend as much flexibility as possible to states ... as long as you’re keeping to those core tenets that the law calls for.”
Mr. Noland cautioned, though, that state officials would “start learning about nuances [in the law] through experiences.”
For instance, said Wyoming state Superintendent Judy Catchpole, officials in her state learned of one of those nuancesa controversial provision that allows military recruiters access to student informationwhen the recruiters showed up at schools.
But she and other state leaders reported that they were excited about the new law’s provisions.
“You get absolutely caught up in the implementation and details and forget about the purpose,” Ms. Catchpole observed.
Despite the pressing issues facing state education leaders, attendance at the ECS conference was down by about 50 people from last year’s number, to 566 attendees. The drop was likely a result of state budget cuts. Several governors and state schools chiefs, including the outgoing ECS chairman, Gov. Kenny Guinn of Nevada, a Republican, canceled at the last minute because of budget negotiations or other pressing matters in their states.
Meanwhile, the incoming chairman, Gov. Roy Barnes of Georgia, a Democrat, said he plans to make achievement and accountability related to the No Child Left Behind Act the focus of his term, which recently was expanded from one to two years for him and all future ECS leaders, including the vice chairman, and treasurer.
“The other thing that I want to impress upon all policymakers, particularly governors, is that this is important stuff,” Mr. Barnes, who is up for re-election as governor this year, said in an interview. “This is the stuff of future prosperity of states. Be involved in it, be active in it, be passionate about it, and don’t let it just be a one-year flash in the pan.”
Many participants were also eager to discuss the Supreme Court’s June 27 decision that upheld the constitutionality of Cleveland’s state-enacted tuition-voucher program, with most of them criticizing the decision.
One panel concluded that the decision likely would not have an immediate impact on states.
Frank Kemerer, the Regents professor of education law at the University of North Texas, said at least 16 states have laws that would likely prohibit a voucher program similar to the one in Cleveland, which allows public money to be spent on tuition at private and religious schools.
“The bottom line is, state constitutions represent a whole body of law that few people know about,” Mr. Kemerer said. Voucher proponents, however, have vowed to challenge such state restrictions. (“Voucher Battles Head to State Capitals,” July 10, 2002.)
Besides state constitutional constraints, voucher advocates will have a difficult time pushing their proposals through because teachers’ unions and other influential groups are so strongly opposed to them, said Terry M. Moe, a Stanford University political science professor and school choice analyst who favors vouchers.
Unions “will do everything they can to stop it, and they will largely be successful,” he predicted. The panelists agreed that initiatives such as tuition tax credits and scholarships similar to vouchers could have a much greater impact.
Staff Writer Erik W. Robelen contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2002 edition of Education Week as State Leaders Gauge Impact Of New ESEA, Voucher Ruling