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Sequestration, Common Core, Waivers Dominate Chiefs' Meeting

To open the Council of Chief State School Officers' meeting here in the nation's capital today, the group's executive director, Chris Minnich, tried a bit of grim humor: "Welcome to Washington, D.C., where everything works smoothly and efficiently."

Sequestration, those mandatory across-the-board cuts to federal spending that have hit the U.S. Department of Education and therefore state budgets, hangs over the two-day gathering, which will include lobbying trips to Capitol Hill for the K-12 bosses. As the meeting kicked off, much of the focus was on just how the slashed federal budget will impact state education departments, and when. But the Common Core State Standards and district waivers from the federal No Child Left Behind Act also cropped up.

Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, for example, produced a blizzard of numbers and data for the chiefs, pointing out, for example, that $727 million in Title I dollars that the U.S. department directs to schools with a large share of low-income students will be eliminated by the sequester. The good news, for now anyway, is that because of forward-funding, the bulk of the cuts won't be felt until the 2013-14 school year, assuming the sequester is still in place then, he noted.

"They failed to make adequate yearly progress," Packer said of Congress' failure to halt the sequester, drawing a laugh from the chiefs.

When I wrote about the CCSSO meeting in Washington last year, the looming possibility of sequestration triggered a lot of cold sweat, with Illinois Superintendent Chris Koch's cryptozoological reaction perhaps the most memorable. But Tony Bennett, the former Indiana superintendent and now Florida's education commissioner, said that he was in fact pretty pessimistic about getting federal lawmakers to change course significantly on something like sequestration. The key goal for state education chiefs, he said, should be to handle new political realities, and their impacts on states, in a smart fashion.

Handling the sequester is a dicey, and far-reaching, job for state education bosses. Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester, for example, said that Title I administrative funds ensure that the state is monitoring and intervening adequately with respect to schools that receive those funds. And June Atkinson, North Carolina's superintendent, said that sequester cuts to the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, all by itself, will negatively affect 13,000 students in her state.

By the way, when I asked Chester about the possibility of district-level waivers from NCLB—despite the California Board of Education's recent support for a waiver pitch from eight large districts in the state—he said, perhaps not surprisingly, "Most states are very leery of the federal government going directly to districts for waivers."

But for states with waivers, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Deborah Delisle told the audience that the time has come for the federal government and states to consider "Flexibility 2.0" with respect to how states use federal funds and meet other federal K-12 mandates. Does that mean a second round of state waivers, or something else? And if so, what would such waivers cover?

Minnich did try to gin up some good cheer in the room by contrasting states' progress on the Common Core State Standards (adopted by 46 states and D.C.) with a time when "almost no state" had world-class standards. Even so, he and other officials anticipate a plunge in passing rates on new common-core-aligned tests, as Kentucky experienced last year.

"I don't think there's a day that goes by in D.C. when I don't hear concerns about this," he said.

Minnich also acknowledged the political, academic, and ideological concerns with the new standards. Still, he urged chiefs whose states had adopted the common core to be persistent and continue to inform and aid districts about them (The CCSSO and the National Governors Association, spearheaded the 2009 initiative that led to the development of the standards).

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