Wednesday, April 27, 2005


The New York Times' Sam Dillon writes a gushing piece on Spellings in tomorrow's paper. The first page reads like an infomercial for the education secretary. The second page has the good stuff:

In a speech to educators on April 7, Ms. Spellings outlined a formula for resolving the federal-state conflict. States that have sound educational policies, demonstrate that achievement is rising, and follow the "basic principles of the law," she said, would be permitted flexibility to adapt the law to local conditions.

The speech drew warm applause, but some educators have since raised questions about how Ms. Spellings intends to identify the worthy states.Chester Finn, a conservative scholar at the Hoover Institution, the research organization, wrote that Ms. Spellings's state-by-state approach "invites politics."

In her first weeks, her treatment of states was already "strikingly uneven," Dr. Finn wrote. "The department has been tough with Connecticut and, of all places, Texas. But it's been lax with North Dakota, alternated between stern and accommodating with Utah, and compromised with California," he said.

Jo Lynne DeMary, Virginia's education commissioner, said she had been eager to hear Ms. Spellings because "We've got a backlash, almost a tsunami, on N.C.L.B."
But after the speech, she said, "I still don't understand what states need to do to get flexibility - and I'm not alone."

This is going to be one of the major themes of the press coverage over the next couple of years leading up to NCLB's reauthorization. By indicating she would grant flexibility subjectively rather than uniformly, Spellings created more headaches where she intended to cure them. If arch-conservative Checker Finn is raising his doubts, you don't have to take my word for it: this is going to cause a lot of trouble for Spellings, the Department, and for NCLB.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Denver Post advocates changes to NCLB

From yesterday's Denver Post editorial page:

By virtue of its title, you'd think that the Bush administration's cornerstone education initiative, No Child Left Behind, would be immune from criticism. Who, after all, wants to leave a child behind?

Yet the program is under fire, and not only from the usual suspects.

School districts from three states sued the administration last week over No Child's unfunded mandates. The nation's largest teachers union expressed its opposition, too, and Utah's legislature passed a bill that snubs NCLB in favor of the state's own accountability measures - even though the defiance may cost Utah $76 million in federal funding.

Colorado officials are trying to work within the boundaries of NCLB. That's fine so long as the state Department of Education is listening to the criticisms and willing to be flexible about implementing the education act.

In mid-April, Colorado education leaders presented a "white paper" to the state officials recommending changes to how the state implements NCLB. The recommendations are in keeping with the basic accountability tenets of NCLB. But they ask that a "body of evidence" be used to judge students with disabilities, rather than just test results. They also don't want students who can't yet speak English forced into taking tests in English.

We embrace the premise of NCLB, which focuses on classroom achievement of all children, including minorities and those with disabilities. But most states and school districts are struggling with implmentation and funding. Under No Child, otherwise top class schools districts, such as Littleton and Boulder Valley, are deemed failures simply because a relative handful of students with disabilities aren't proficient. Districts are required to meet the unrealistic goal of having 100 percent of all students proficient in reading and math by 2014, or else face sanctions.

After state education officials take up the white-paper recommendations in May, they should seek a waiver from the NCLB provisions that don't make sense for Colorado. Some actually require the state to lower its own standards.

Colorado has been at the forefront of the standards and accountability movement. If the state makes smart adjustments, Colorado can avoid the impressive action by lawmakers in Utah.

They will find in Colorado, as state policymakers all over the country have found, that if they pursue this course, the feds will most likely not compromise at all. Despite the rhetoric about flexibility, little has been granted.

Colorado may be the next state to have serious disputes with Washington over the implementation of NCLB.

A novel approach

A state Senator in New Hampshire has come up with an interesting idea: a single, statewide school district. It might work in a state like New Hampshire (i.e., a small state with a culturally homogenous population), but I can't imagine it being anything but a mess in larger, more populous states like Texas or California, or even larger geographic states like Montana or Alaska. Still, it's an interesting idea.

[Sen.] Gatsas, a Republican, has come up with a proposal that starts by adding up all the state's property wealth and dividing it by all the pupils in the state.

It sets a statewide benchmark for what should be raised for education per pupil and helps towns with smaller tax bases to achieve that goal. It also sends targeted aid to districts with extra costs for special education and other expenses.

However, only towns below 150 percent of the state average median income ($57,575) and 150 percent below the state average for equalized property value would qualify for targeted aid.

It raises $363 million with a state property tax of $2.84 per $1,000 of assessed property value. Most of that would remain in the communities that raise it, but wealthier towns that now donate a portion to subsidize poorer towns wouldn't have to. Wealthier towns could keep the money, but only if they spend it on education -- not to offset local tax rates.

The article goes on to say that the state Supreme Court is likely to rule that the House school finance plan is unconstitutional. The Senate wants guidance from the Supremes on the House plan and on this potential solution. It'll be interesting to see if this idea goes anywhere. At the very least, I'm happy that some policymakers -- even though they may be few and far between -- are making the attempt to have an original idea. How novel.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Heritage Foundation Choice Report

The Heritage Foundation is all gushy over school choice. Their annual "Progress Report" can be found here.

Progressives in the politics of education have to find ways to side with those parents -- usually urban minorities -- who are disgusted with the public school system while not caving to conservative interests who would hand our public schools over to private companies or religious entities. There are good ways to do this. But we absolutely cannot let the conservatives -- here represented by the arch-conservative Heritage Foundation -- own this issue. We cannot simply advocate the status quo (or even the status quo plus more funding). Some choice is good, but only choice that will benefit and strengthen our public system of education.

Cause and effect

Chris Correa links to some interesting data about teacher practices in the NCLB math classroom. Projects are on the way out. Multiple choice questions are ascendent. Are we surpised?

Courts and schools

The state Supreme Courts have played a key role in increasing funds for public education over the last few decades. But with new political pressure to rein in "judicial activism", three red-state courts will have to make very difficult decisions very soon.

First, Kansas has approved $127 million in new funds for schools. The Republican legislature insists it's enough; Democratic Governor insists it's not.

In Montana, rising Democratic star Governor Schweitzer led a Democratic legislature to increase school funding by $32 million, the largest increase in over 10 years. The courts had ruled that the school finance system itself was unconstitutional, though, so the work there is by no means done. There will be a special session in the fall.

And in Texas, where I have a front row seat to the disturbing proceedings, the school finance plan will be hammered out in conference committee sometime in the coming week. There is an eminent possibility that no compromise will be reached, which would force a special session. The Texas Supreme Court will hear the school finance case in early July.

In this climate of a harsh conservative attack on the courts, it would be highly unlikely that any court would mandate a dollar amount or a specific school finance program. They realize that those tasks are best left to the elected legislatures. (For example, Justice DeGrasse of New York overreached when he ruled last year that New York City schools must receive $30 billion new dollars. I agree with him in principle, but clearly, courts should not be mandating details.)

However, the Courts can -- and should -- articulate broad principles that will lead legislatures towards constitutional systems. I don't envy them in trying to walk that tightrope, though.

Education for children of illegal immigrants

There's a nice editorial in today's Kansas City Star about an upcoming court case that will decide if children of illegal immigrants can receive in-state tuition rates in Kansas. The author argues that the children should not be punished for their parents' lawbreaking. It's something I hadn't thought about before. Find it here (and go to for a login).

Here's a sample:

Kansas is well known for a legal battle in which it argued that some children do not deserve access to a public education.

More than 50 years after Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education, Kansas is preparing to do legal battle again – in support of the children of illegal immigrants.

This time, Kansas is on the right side of the argument.

Recall in Brown that Kansas fought to keep its schools segregated. The Supreme Court settled that one. This latest fight isn't likely to go that far.

Eight other states are like Kansas. The states had the foresight to offer the children of illegal immigrants the ability to pay in-state college tuition fees, rather than the sometimes three times higher out-of-state rates. At least seven other states are also considering similar legislation.

The lower in-state rate makes college financially feasible for these students, most of whom are poor. How society treats the children of illegal immigrants is a sideline issue of immigration reform. The children did not choose their plight.

Yet some argue that they should pay for their parents' mistakes. They say offering the children the opportunity to pay for college is akin to "rewarding illegal behavior."

If that rationale were extended to other criminals, the educational opportunities of all children with a parent convicted of a crime would be taken away. No one proposes that solution because it is illogical. Immigrant children are simply an easier target.

Among the lawyers who will argue for Kansas at a hearing May 10 is the man who laid the legal groundwork to get these children a kindergarten-through-12th-grade education, Peter Roos. In 1982, Mr. Roos successfully won a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plyler vs. Doe, a case based in Texas.

In Plyler, the court found it unfair to sentence undocumented children to "a lifetime of hardship" by denying them the opportunity of an education because of something their parents did. The same argument could be made for the Kansas children. As Mr. Roos says, this case is for "the Plyler children come of age."
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