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Love Fest for Arne Duncan and Governors

The billed topic at the National Governors Association education committee hearing this afternoon was the rewrite of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But nearly every governor at Sunday's confab with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (part of the NGA's annual winter meeting in the nation's capital) was more interested in talking about the $4 billion Race to the Top Fund competition. The secretary indicated that the process of picking finalists is on a fast track and that states that make the final cut are due to come to Washington for interviews by the middle of March.

Of course, most of the states have applied for a piece of the economic-stimulus program prize. So, naturally, most of the governors took advantage of their mike time to plug their state's applications and shower the secretary with accolades for the Obama administration's education agenda.

"Your arrival on the scene ... has re-energized us," said Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat.

Said Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, also a Democrat: "It's amazing what the promise of funding does to bring change."

It was the ultimate public lobbying effort, which no doubt continued on in more private conversations once the 90-minute panel discussion ended. I saw Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, whose state also is seeking a share of the RTTT money, swoop in on the secretary right away.

And the secretary had his own effusive praise for the governors, telling them he's been "amazed by your level of commitment and courage to work on [changing] the status quo," referring to the variety of state law and policy changes that have been enacted as part of the Race to the Top competition.

Between all the plugs for states' Race to the Top proposals, though, there were a few conversational threads about renewing the ESEA, known in its current form as the No Child Left Behind Act, which is how many governors still refer to it. Though renewal of the law this year remains highly uncertain, three governors, Mr. Beshear, Gov. Bill Ritter of Colorado and his fellow Democrat, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, stressed the importance of giving states flexibility in the law's new version.

Mr. Ritter said governors needed to be major participants in shaping the renewed law and that "the time has come for federal policy to support state leadership."

Mr. Richardson, who is in his final year in office, offered the most candid advice, saying the Obama administration should not just leave it to Congress to rewrite NCLB. Doing so, he suggested, would be to the detriment of states.

"We need an Obama administration proposal," he said. "I hope reauthorization is not just a Congressional exercise."

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