Cairo Association of Teachers - Newsletter

CAT Tracks for July 25, 2006

From the New York Times...

Most States Fail Demands Set Out in Education Law


Most states failed to meet federal requirements that all teachers be “highly qualified” in core teaching fields and that state programs for testing students be up to standards by the end of the past school year, according to the federal government.

The deadline was set by the No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush’s effort to make all American students proficient in reading and math by 2014. But the Education Department found that no state had met the deadline for qualified teachers, and it gave only 10 states full approval of their testing systems.

Faced with such findings, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who took office promising flexible enforcement of the law, has toughened her stance, leaving several states in danger of losing parts of their federal aid.

In the past few weeks, Ms. Spellings has flatly rejected as inadequate the testing systems in Maine and Nebraska. She has also said that nine states are so far behind in providing highly qualified teachers that they may face sanctions, and she has accused California of failing to provide federally required alternatives to troubled schools. California could be fined as much as $4.25 million.

The potential fines are far higher than any the Education Department has levied over the law, and officials in several states, already upset with many of the law’s provisions, have privately expressed further anger over the threat of fines. But Ms. Spellings faces pressure for firm enforcement of the law from a broad array of groups, including corporations and civil rights organizations.

“In the early part of her tenure, Secretary Spellings seemed more interested in finding reasons to waive the law’s requirements than to enforce them,” said Clint Bolick, president of the Alliance for School Choice, a group based in Phoenix that supports vigorous enforcement of provisions that give students the right to transfer from failing schools. “More recently, she seems intent on holding states’ feet to the fire.”

In an interview, Ms. Spellings acknowledged her shift in emphasis.

“I want states to know that Congress and the president mean business on the law,” she said. She has stressed that message in part, she said, because the deadlines, which expired this month, were not met, and because lawmakers have been asking her whether states are meeting the law’s requirements.

“I’m enforcing the law — does that make me tough?” she said. “Last year it was, ‘We’re marching together toward the deadline,’ but now it’s time for, ‘Your homework is due.’ ”

Douglas D. Christensen, the Nebraska education commissioner, has accused Ms. Spellings and her subordinates of treating Nebraska in a “mean-spirited, arbitrary and heavy-handed way” after their announcement on June 30 that the state’s testing system was “nonapproved” and that they intended to withhold $127,000 in federal money.

In an interview in Lincoln, Neb., Mr. Christensen said he first realized the administration’s attitude had changed in April, when Raymond Simon, deputy education secretary, addressed most of the 50 state school superintendents at a gathering in Washington.

“Ray went on a 12-minute diatribe of ‘You folks just ain’t getting it done’ and said the department would be strictly interpreting the law from here on,” Mr. Christensen said.

Mr. Simon disputed that account — “I’m not a diatribe type of guy,” he said — but acknowledged that he had spoken bluntly.

“I tried to emphasize that we continue to be partners,” Mr. Simon said, “but that there are some things we cannot be flexible on.”

Mr. Bush signed the act into law in January 2002. Under his first education secretary, Rod Paige, legislators, educators and teachers unions criticized the law’s many rules and what they said was its overemphasis on standardized testing.

After Ms. Spellings took office in January 2005, she allowed some states to renegotiate the ways they enforced the law, and on major issues she offered ways to comply that prevented thousands of schools from being designated as failing.

Her efforts softened the outcry from states. But they brought criticism from corporate executives who hoped the law would shake up schools to protect American competitiveness. Criticism also came from civil rights groups that wanted the law to eliminate educational disparities between whites and minorities, and from groups angry that although the law required districts to help students in failing schools transfer out, only 1 percent of eligible students had done so.

Some experts say most parents do not want to remove children from neighborhood schools. But others say districts have subverted the program, partly by informing parents about their options too late.

Mr. Bolick’s group, the Alliance for School Choice, used a similar argument in a complaint filed this year against the Los Angeles Unified School District, where 250,000 students were eligible for transfers in 2005-6, but only about 500 successfully transferred. That complaint generated considerable news coverage and moved Ms. Spellings to action.

On May 15, she wrote every state, linking the “unacceptably low” participation in transfer programs to the “poor and uneven quality” of many districts’ implementation. “We are prepared to take significant enforcement action,” she said.

At the California Department of Education, Diane Levin, the state’s No Child Left Behind administrator, said she had assumed that California was on solid ground because a federal review of its enforcement of the law was ending positively.

But then California received a letter from Ms. Spellings’s office demanding extensive new documentation by Aug. 15 on the transfer programs in the state’s 20 largest districts. Officials warned California that if the documentation proved inadequate, the government would withhold part of the $700 million the state was to receive this fall for high-poverty schools, said Ms. Spellings’s spokesman, Kevin Sullivan.

Ms. Levin said California felt whipsawed. “We’re doing everything the law asks us to do,” she said, “which in a state this size is a huge amount of work, and we’re treated like we’re doing nothing.”

Dozens of other states have also felt the tougher enforcement.

In May, federal officials ruled that nine states were so far from meeting the teacher qualification provision that they could lose federal money. Ms. Spellings said she would decide on the penalties after August, when states must outline plans for getting 100 percent of teachers qualified.

At the end of June, Henry L. Johnson, an assistant secretary of education, wrote to 34 states, including New York and New Jersey, saying that their tests had major problems and that they must provide new documentation during a period of mandatory oversight.

Dr. Johnson warned some states that federal money might be withheld. And he rejected the testing programs in Maine and Nebraska. His letter to Maine said $114,000 would be withheld unless the state could change Washington’s mind.

Nebraska is the only state allowed to meet the testing requirements with separate exams written by teachers in its 250 districts rather than with one statewide test.

Dr. Johnson’s letter to Nebraska said that although locally written tests were permissible, the state had not shown it was holding all districts to a high standard.

Before announcing that decision, Dr. Johnson visited the Papillion-La Vista School District, south of Omaha.

Harlan H. Metschke, Papillion’s superintendent, said he had told Mr. Johnson that Nebraska’s tests helped teachers focus on students’ learning needs, unlike standardized tests, which compared students from one school with another.

“But federal officials have the mentality that there has to be one state test,” Mr. Metschke said.