Monday, April 18, 2005

Push becomes shove

Christian Science Monitor runs a story today on the "rebellions" against NCLB in three very different and unlikely places: Utah, Texas, and Connecticut:

Connecticut has announced it's suing the US Department of Education, claiming the law mandates changes without giving the funding to carry them out. The education commissioner in Texas unilaterally decided Washington's requirements were flawed, and she simply disregarded part of them - a kind of civil disobedience.

And Tuesday, Utah, the state that gave Mr. Bush his biggest win last November, is about to provide the most stinging rebuke yet to NCLB. In a special session, the state Senate is expected to pass overwhelmingly a bill to ensure that in a conflict between state and federal education regulations, Utah's rules will trump Washington's dictates. The House has already passed the bill, and if the Senate does as well, Utah is putting at risk $120 million it receives in federal education aid.

"The paramount question is who runs this show: Is it state and local government or Washington?" says state Sen. Thomas Hatch (R). "Are we going to let the federal government contribute a very small percentage of the education budget and dictate what we can or cannot do, or are we going to maintain control at the local level?"

The local rebellions come on the heels of an announcement by US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings that the department intends to exercise more flexibility than under her predecessor in addressing states' concerns about the law. NCLB requires annual testing in Grades 3 to 8 and sets out penalties for schools that fail to show "adequate yearly progress." In making the announcement, however, Secretary Spellings said there were certain "bright lines of the statute," such as reporting annual testing results by student subgroups, that "are not up for negotiation." This led some frustrated state officials like Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal to refer to any new flexibility as "more rhetoric than reality."

Historically, there's always been tension between states and federal government on education reform. When President Clinton tried to implement new standards, he also met resistance, often from Democratic governors. Now Bush finds himself facing similar concerns from some Republican governors, including Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell.

The fact of the matter is there is no constitutional grounds for federal intervention in education. The courts have ruled that the feds can tie money to "results," however the feds choose to define those results. But if states forego the money, the feds lose any and all control they might have had.

Thus Ms. Spellings backtracking last week. But let's not be fooled: that was a PR move. We've seen consistently in Spellings' brief tenure that whenever there's trouble she talks about flexibility and local control. Everybody breathes a big sigh of relief and then she goes right on with her intractable ways.

Well, to indulge a cliche, push has come to shove. Somebody's about to blink.


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