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Governors Talk Funding, Federal Role in Education

The nation's governors are meeting in Washington this weekend as the economic picture in their states gradually improves—and as the federal government continues to play an active and evolving role in shaping education policy, whether state officials like it or not.

Many state leaders attending the winter meeting of the National Governors Association said they were encouraged by the increased flow of revenues they're seeing, which is almost certain to benefit schools.

States are crawling out of the "abyss" of the recent recession, said Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat.

Not so long ago, "things were absolutely in free fall," Markell said during a press conference that opened the event, being held Feb. 24-27 in the nation's capital. Now, he said, "I don't think anybody's feeling great, but I think we're feeling better."

The data support Markell's optimism. State revenues have risen for seven straight quarters. And overall state general fund spending is expected to rise by about 3 percent for fiscal 2012—a sharp turnaround from the dark days of the downturn, fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2010, when that spending fell by 3.8 percent and 5.7 percent, by one estimate.

States received significant help during the bleakest stretch of the recession and post-recession period from Congress and the Obama administration, which poured billions of dollars into emergency aid to save school jobs and into grants through the stimulus program. States and schools received another cash infusion later through the federal Education Jobs Fund.

Much of that money has already been spent. But the federal influence has also been evident in many states that approved changes in teacher evaluation, charter school policy, data use and other areas as they competed for money through the stimulus-funded Race to the Top competition.

The administration has also encouraged states to participate in the Common Core State Standards Initiative, providing financial support for common tests and making adoption of college- and career-ready standards a condition of receiving waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act. Eleven states have received waivers so far, and many more have said they will apply for them.

Some state officials and other observers have said the conditions the administration has attached to states' receipt of waivers are heavy-handed. Others, like South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and some lawmakers in that state, have raised objections to the common core, saying it could weaken schools' say over curriculum.

"While I understand and agree with looking outside South Carolina for ideas to improve educational outcomes," Haley wrote in a letter to a state legislator this month, "I firmly believe that our government and our people should retain as much local control over programs as possible."

At this weekend's event, governors offered a range of opinions on the administration's influence over state school policy.

Gov. Dave Heineman, a Nebraska Republican who chairs NGA, acknowledged that the emergency aid has proved valuable, but cautioned against Washington policymakers attempting to promote a single agenda across diverse states.

"It's a limited role," Heineman said of federal involvement. "We appreciate the funding, but [there should be] as few strings attached as possible."

Markell rejected the notion that the common-core standards had emanated from Washington, noting that it grew out of state-level work directed by the NGA and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Delaware and other states are participating in the common core even though they know it will result in students and schools being judged by new, tougher benchmarks. "Our view was, a day of honesty was in order," Markell said. "We knew there would be a lot of pushback."

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat who is pushing an aggressive agenda to change teaching standards and other policies in his state, scoffed at the idea that the common core amounted to federal overreach.

"They say that about everything," he said of Republican critics of the federal role in education. "Really, give me a break. If I was the governor of some of those states, I wouldn't want to have my kids compared on a test to other states."

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, said he did not see evidence of federal overreach in the Obama administration's education policies.

"We had that with No Child Left Behind, frankly," said Branstad, of the law created under the presidential administration of George W. Bush. He said he hopes to have Iowa apply for a waiver from provisions of the law, though he wants the state legislature to take action on several education bills first.

Branstad also said Iowa, which long resisted state academic standards, would benefit from the common core, which his state has adopted, as well as from other education policies he is backing this year.

"We were once best in America," Branstad said of Iowa's schools. "Now we're middle of the pack. We've been complacent too long. ... We think too many states have gone ahead of us because they've put in place significant reforms and improvements, while Iowa has stagnated."

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican whose state last year approved far-reaching policy changes to expand private-school vouchers and charters and change teacher evaluation, said the Obama administration's imprint on state education policy was political, not financial.

"The money and the carrots and so forth have probably helped," Daniels said, "but if that went away tomorrow, and some of it will probably have to because the nation's broke, they still would have made a great contribution, by simply telling the truth, about failing schools, the inadequacy of teacher preparation."

Having a Democratic administration promote charter schools and tie teacher evaluation to student performance, he said, "helped make a broader set of reforms respectable among a wider group of people."

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