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Listening in on Transition Team's Listening Tour

This morning I attended a meeting organized by the National League of Cities for education policy of staff of big city mayors. The session focused on next steps for the incoming administration and Congress, and was "on background" for reporters, meaning that I can't give names of the people who spoke.

The mayoral staff heard from a representative of the Obama transition team. The group is tight-lipped about its next steps and in a "listen-only" mode for the most part when it comes to communicating with education organizations. The representative gave little indication of what the Obama administration's first moves will be once it takes office. But the representative did solicit ideas from the group.

The city folks expressed interest in dropout prevention programs and money for career and technical education, among other programs. And they wanted to know what education programs would be included in the pending economic stimulus package, and how the school facilities program President-elect Obama mentioned this weekend will be structured.

The transition team official wasn't allowed to answer those questions. But he said their suggestions would be posted on change.gov., along with other groups' proposals. I'm guessing it will go in this section, which seems to be emerging as a clearinghouse of ideas for the new administration on public policy problems, coming from major business, professional associations, and even high school students.

The mayors' staff also heard from an education advocate who has had several meetings with the transition team. She said they have getting a lot of feedback on the new Title I regulations, particularly on graduation rates. Some organizations would like to see them scrapped, others are hoping they'll stay in place.

Transition team members are also thinking a lot about the future of Reading First, the advocate said, and don't want to see the federal government get out of the business of improving literacy. It sounds like there will, eventually, be something to succeed the reading program that Obama strategist David Axelrod referred to as a "boondoggle." But we don't know yet what that will be or when it will emerge.

And the advocate guessed that Congress will likely tackle expanding pre-K or higher education before it get to No Child Left Behind reauthorization.

Democratic congressional staff who also attended the event were optimistic that Congress can finish reauthorization during the next two years. One aide said she saw a good deal of bipartisan consensus building on various aspects of NCLB, including the need to expand charter schools. She said charters might be the subject of a hearing in the House early next year on NCLB. I don't think the committee has looked at charters in depth since Democrats won the majority. So that should be interesting.

And another aide suggested that the federal Department of Education may take a broader role going forward in providing incentives for districts innovate and facilitating discussions. The aide mentioned Obama's innovation districts bill, introduced when he was in the Senate.

The congressional staffers said it's still unclear just which education programs will wind up in the stimulus, although they mentioned some of the ideas that Obama has already talked about publicly, including school facilities and expanding schools' access to broadband.

But it sounded like they are talking with the transition team. And they're hearing from a number of groups who want to get money for other programs in what's likely to be a costly, sweeping bill touching on many aspects of the federal government. In addition to school construction, education groups would like to see money for pre-K, Title I, Pell Grants, teacher training, and especially, money for students in special education.

For all you cash-strapped school finance officers out there, it's worth noting that even if Congress doesn't provide specific funding for some of those programs, it may provide billions in relief directly to states, which could then pass it to struggling school districts.

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