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Governors at D.C. Meeting Anxious Over NCLB Rewrite, K-12 Workforce

Washington

Federal policy observers at a National Governors Association meeting this past weekend told governors that they could soon wield more control over their states' public schools, if federal officials approve a proposed reauthorization of education law making their way through Congress. 

At the NGA's winter meeting here on Feb. 22, governors also highlighted the urgency with which they approach improving the performance of their public schools, even though they often find themselves frustrated with their place in the K-12 policy hierarchy.

Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Nevada Republican and chair of the NGA's Education and Workforce Committee, said making public schools work better had become a "personal mission" for many governors, and highlighted his proposals to double spending on resources for English-language learners and to improve student literacy by the 3rd grade.

But the governors indicated that the continuing uncertainty over reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now eight years overdue, did them no favors. (The No Child Left Behind Act is the current iteration of ESEA.)

"A broken law and waivers [from the NCLB law] do not allow students and schools to achieve their greatest potential," New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat and vice-chair of the NGA committee, said in her opening remarks.

'I'm Still Laughing at That'

While the Title I formula and funding for disadvantages students, along with charter school grants and data disaggregated by student subgroups were elements of NCLB likely to survive, adequate yearly progress and the "cascade" of sanctions for struggling schools would likely be left out of any reauthorization, Michael J. Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, told the governors. But the fate of annual statewide testing and the School Improvement Grant program was still unclear, he added.

Current GOP-driven proposals to rewrite NCLB, Petrilli noted, would significant shrink the federal footprint over education.

But if U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan's remarks at a breakfas with reporters on Feb. 23 are any indication, Republican's plans for NCLB may get a hostile reception from President Barack Obama's adminstration.


Andrew J. Rotherham, the co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a K-12 consulting firm, also gave governors the rundown of where NCLB had performed well, noting that while "it's clearly time to fix it," NCLB had also provided a new level of oversight for education. And he touched on the debate over the extent to which students should be tested to hold K-12 accountable.

"If you don't like test-based accountability, choice is the other side of that coin," Rotherham told the governors. 

But governors expressed frustration with various elements of their K-12 systems that extended well beyond testing. Hassan, for example, lamented governors' lack of statutory authority over public schools in several ways that "really puts us on the sidelines." And North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, said his state had lost track of which of tests provide data on students and which tests provide data on teachers.

Several governors highlighted the need to re-evaluate and alter how teachers and administrators are recruited and trained. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon stressed the weak bargaining positions public schools often found themselves in because of low salaries: "We have to pay money to get good people." And McCrory highlighted legislation he was planning that would make it easier for people from outside the K-12 profession to become teachers. 

"I'm one that got trained as a teacher, and I'm still laughing at that," he told the other governors. (McCrory once worked as a student teacher.)

But Gov. Jack Markell, a Delaware Democrat, bemoaned the general nature of the discussion around the NCLB rewrite debate. Highlighting the PowerPoint slide that Petrilli presented, Markell said the concerns of parents and teachers about students' success were too often left out of K-12 policy debates altogether. 

"There's so much jargon that people's eyes glaze over," he said.

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