Federal

Task Force Forming to Seek New Vision for Schools

By Alan Richard — April 28, 2004 4 min read
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Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona and other political activists and thinkers launched a campaign last week to find education policy solutions that they say would go beyond President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano.
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano fields questions after a speech April 22 unveiling an effort to study school improvement ideas beyond the No Child Left Behind law.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

Gov. Napolitano, a Democrat, said a new task force would hold public hearings across the country starting this summer to determine what the public education system should look like in the future.

“No Child Left Behind is today,” she said in an interview after an April 22 speech announcing the plans at the Mayflower Hotel here. The task force, she said, “is about what’s tomorrow.”

The election-year launch comes amid rising criticism of the No Child Left Behind Act, which President Bush has promoted as one of his most important domestic accomplishments. The measure won approval in Congress from both sides of the aisle more than two years ago, but has drawn fire recently from Democratic presidential hopefuls and many Republican state legislators.

Gov. Napolitano said the task force, however, would examine broader issues, such as the length of the school day and year, and ways of improving access to college.

“If the media says [the initiative] is Bush-bashing—which it isn’t—then people will see it that way,” she said. “Out where I live, people don’t view [education] as a Republican or Democrat thing.”

The task force and related research efforts are sponsored, though, by two Washington think tanks with Democratic connections: the Institute for America’s Future and the Center for American Progress.

The first is led by Robert L. Borosage, who has advised several Democratic U.S. senators and worked on the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign. The latter is led by John Podesta, a former chief of staff for President Clinton and adviser to Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

Gov. Napolitano will co-chair the task force, called Renewing Our Schools, Securing Our Future: A Task Force on Education for the 21st Century, with investment banker Philip D. Murphy and the writer and scholar Roger Wilkins.

Mr. Murphy is the senior director of the Goldman Sachs Group Inc., a New York City-based investment firm. Mr. Wilkins, a professor of history and American culture at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., won a Pulitzer Prize for his Watergate-era editorials in The Washington Post and is a former member of the District of Columbia school board.

How Political?

Mr. Podesta said in an interview after last week’s announcement that it was time for the nation to move past the emphasis on academic standards and testing that has defined education reform in many states and helped lead to the No Child Left Behind law.

“It’s time to look beyond that,” he said. “If our field of vision is our hand in front of us, we’re not going to get there.”

Mr. Podesta maintained that the yet-to-be-chosen task force will be nonpartisan and will look for members with differing political views. He said discussion of school choice programs that send public money to private schools, though, may not fit the panel’s goals.

Mr. Podesta suggested in a short speech during the event that the task force look at year-round schooling, new leadership roles for teachers, and community partnerships to create new models for public education. He said such a task is “bigger than all of us.”

“It requires us to not only ask new questions,” he said, “but to also question some of the old answers.”

The Bush administration responded to the announcement of plans for the task force by saying the United States is on track with education reforms linked to the No Child Left Behind law.

“Let’s hope they’re not playing politics, because this is about every child being able to do reading and math on grade level,” said Susan Aspey, the press secretary for the Department of Education.

“No Child Left Behind is a 12-year implementation,” she said. “You don’t erase an achievement gap that has been decades in the making overnight.”

Gov. Napolitano said that the task force was less politically motivated than some observers might think.

During her speech, the governor did address the federal law and its requirement that each state provide a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom. “Try finding a highly qualified math teacher in Gila Bend, Arizona,” she said, suggesting the difficulty of recruiting teachers with impressive credentials in remote areas.

She argued that the context was larger: “What we are about today … is not about the implementation of one piece of legislation.”

“It’s about creating an intergenerational legacy” of better education, she added. “That is worth spending some time on.”

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