Facing State Protests, U.S. Offers More Flexibility on School Rules
By SAM DILLON
Published: April 8, 2005
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MOUNT VERNON, Va., April 7 - Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings
offered greater flexibility to states on Thursday in meeting the
requirements of the Bush administration's education reform law, calling the
changes a major policy shift.
In her first national response to growing resistance among state officials
to the law, known as No Child Left Behind, Ms. Spellings sought to set a
new, more cooperative tone. She compared the law's tempestuous first years
to those of an infant's experiencing "the terrible 2's."
"This is a new day," she said. "States that show results and follow the
principles of No Child Left Behind will be eligible for new tools to help
you meet the law's goals."
Although President Bush promoted the law during his re-election campaign as
one of his major accomplishments, more than 30 states - including many
Republican strongholds - have raised objections to it. Some argue that the
federal government is not adequately financing its requirements, which
include a broad expansion of standardized testing. Others object to federal
intrusion into an area long considered the domain of the states.
It was unclear whether Ms. Spellings's proposals went far enough to assuage
state officials' concerns, though several state superintendents expressed
approval, as did both national teachers unions and several members of
But Connecticut officials, who announced earlier this week that they would
sue the federal government for forcing the state to conduct more testing
without providing the money to pay for it, were not impressed.
"This supposed initiative offers less than meets the eye," said Richard
Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general. "Nothing in all of today's
verbiage corrects the key legal lapse: by the law's clear terms, no mandate
means no mandate, if it's unfunded. Our determination to sue continues."
Ms. Spellings announced specific concessions in only one area, concerning
how learning-disabled students must be tested.
Until now, the administration has allowed only 1 percent of all students,
those most severely handicapped, to be given special tests; all other
disabled students have been required to take the test administered to
regular students. Dozens of state officials have called that policy unfair
and unrealistic. On Thursday, Ms. Spellings said states would be allowed to
administer alternative tests to an additional 2 percent of students.
Ms. Spellings also said the Department of Education could give some states
additional flexibility, but she said they must first prove that they deserve
The states that may be eligible, she said, must have generally sound
educational policies in place, demonstrate that student achievement is
rising and follow the "basic principles of the law," which she listed as
administering standardized tests every year in Grades 3 through 8, reporting
test results by ethnic groups and others to make sure that all students are
advancing, and working to improve teacher training and parent participation.
For states that meet those criteria, Ms. Spellings said, "it is the results
that truly matter, not the bureaucratic way you get there."
That and several other of her statements brought applause from the education
officials gathered here in an auditorium at George Washington's plantation.
Ms. Spellings invited all 50 state education superintendents to appear.
About 15 did, as did 10 deputy superintendents, said G. Thomas Houlihan,
executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, an
association of state superintendents that gets significant financing from
the Department of Education.
"We have some members who do not like this law," Mr. Houlihan said after the
"It's meant a lot of heavy lifting," he said, "but this speech has left me
cautiously optimistic" about chances for improving federal-state relations.
Trent Blankenship, Wyoming's superintendent of public instruction, said: "I
thought she nailed it. I'm delighted that we'll be having more flexibility
if we stick to the law's principles."
Terry Bergeson, the superintendent in Washington State, said she had met
repeatedly with federal officials in recent months to request changes in the
testing policies for disabled students.
"We've been doing a disservice to those kids under the No Child Left Behind
testing rules," Ms. Bergeson said. "So I was very excited to hear the
Some education advocates worried that Secretary Spellings's offer of new
flexibility to some states but not others would lead to favoritism.
"That could make the law even more subject to political manipulation than it
already is," said Monty Neill, co-executive director of FairTest, a group
that opposes heavy reliance on standardized testing.
Patti Harrington, the superintendent of public instruction in Utah, said she
welcomed the new rules for testing disabled students. The state's
Legislature passed a resolution last month protesting the federal law and is
poised to vote on a bill at a special session later this month that would
require Utah officials to follow state educational priorities rather than
As for the broader promise of further flexibility, Ms. Harrington said, "I
hope it's more than a speech."
"I receive these letters from the department that say, 'You must do this and
this and this,' " she added. "They've got to let us do our work."
Betty J. Sternberg, the education commissioner in Connecticut, did not
attend the speech. In January, she sent Secretary Spellings a letter noting
that Connecticut had tested elementary students effectively in alternate
years for two decades and did not want to expand to every year, preferring
to use the money to expand reading and other programs proven to raise
achievement. Ms. Spellings denied that request and repeatedly rebuffed Dr.
Sternberg's requests for a meeting.
Dr. Sternberg said by phone from Connecticut on Thursday that she had
considered attending the secretary's speech.
"I would have gone," she said, "had I thought that I would be able to sit
down with her, because I'd like to work out our differences in a conference
room, not in a courtroom."
Ms. Spellings left the auditorium immediately after her speech without
taking questions. Dr. Sternberg, who downloaded the speech from the
Internet, pointed to one of the secretary's statements: "No Child Left
Behind was designed not to dictate processes, but to promote innovation and
improve results for kids."
Dr. Sternberg said, "Taking the secretary at her word about flexibility,
then we would ask that the feds not dictate to us the process of giving
standardized tests in every grade, and instead consider our proposal as an
"And I still would like to meet with her personally," she added.