States Scramble to Meet Key Education Deadline
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
Forty-three states are rushing headlong toward the Jan. 31 deadline for submitting to the U.S. Department of Education plans that lay out how their schools will meet strict new federal education standards.
So far, only seven states have met the deadline, and expectations run high among some state and school administrators that a slew of states will miss the mark.
The new federal education law, known as No Child Left Behind, requires that states submit preliminary plans by Jan. 31 that show how their schools will make sure all students are making "adequate yearly progress"(AYP) in reading and math.
After that, the next big deadline is May 1, when states must have final plans. States that fail to meet these deadlines risk losing federal education money.
Of the seven states that have already filed their accountability plans, the department has approved five: Colorado, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York and Ohio. The department declines to identify the two state plans that it is currently reviewing.
While states are making good progress, as many as half could miss the Jan. 31 deadline, predicts Patricia Sullivan, deputy executive director for advocacy and strategic partnerships for the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents chief state education officials.
Among other things, states must show in their plans how all their public schools will be held to the same standards when measuring yearly progress. States also must show how they will determine whether each student in several categories, including race, gender, English proficiency and economic background, are making steady academic progress.
A school will be considered "poor performing" if it misses meeting its goal in even one of the categories.
The documents are not light reading. Colorado's preliminary plan, is more than 70 pages in length, for example. Ohio's plan is more than 50 pages.
The Education Department is sticking to its guns and doesn't plan to extend the Jan. 31 deadline -- even though one reason some states say they are scrambling is because the department didn't publish final regulations on how to comply with the law until late November 2002.
The department is working with all the states regarding the plans, department spokeswoman Melinda Malico said. The department's second in command, Under Secretary Eugene Hickok and teams of federal education officials have met with 17 states, and 26 more state meetings are on tap. "I'm sure we'll be in communication with states to make sure all states get their plans in by (the deadline)," Malico said.
Adding delay and confusion in many states: new governors, many of whom had never focused on No Child Left Behind, let alone AYP, until recently. Most of the 24 new governors are being sworn in during the first two weeks of January, giving them just about two weeks to figure out how their states will comply with the law. Beyond that, at least a dozen states have new chief state school officials who must know the nuts and bolts of a very complex federal law.
The administration rebuffed calls from governors who wanted the Jan. 31 deadline extended by one month. The governors themselves obviously do not write the accountability plans, which are quite technical in nature and rather arcane. But they know that their heads will be on the political chopping block when schools in the state don't show yearly progress and are considered "failing" under the new law.
"We would have liked more time so that governors could have been part of the process," said Dane Linn, director of the education division at the National Governors' Association. The NGA says it is working with the new governors on the issue and that AYP will be part of the upcoming governors' mid-year meeting in Washington.
President Bush earlier this month dismissed complaints that the law is so prescriptive that it is setting up schools to fail. "Accountability doesn't cause failure; it identifies failure," the president said during a White House ceremony Jan. 8 that marked the one-year anniversary of the signing the new federal education measure into law.
"Only by acknowledging poor performance can we ever help schools to achieve," Bush said.
The big question is whether the Bush administration will make good on its threats and come down hard on states that come up short. "It would be awkward for the department to back down," said Jack Jennings, director of Center on Education Policy, an education advocacy group based in Washington. The group last week issued a report calling on the administration to tone down its rhetoric and give states more flexibility in meeting the new law.
More flexibility is the mantra for states. Many are chafing under what they say are very narrow federal requirements that could jeopardize the progress their states are making in education.
Some states privately are mulling whether they should walk away from federal education money rather than change education systems that they think work. Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean had to be talked out of doing just that while he was in office last year.
Nebraska officials have been among the most vocal and combative. The state's education commissioner, Doug Christensen, has made it clear that cutting federal ties and money is an option.
"We hope that doesn't happen," said Jerry Sellentin, executive director of the Nebraska Council of School Administrators. But Sellentin said that Nebraska's current system testing and accountability plans work and totally revamping the systems "would not be good for Nebraska."
Louisiana won't go as far to say it will forego federal money, but Republican Gov. Mike Foster Jr. has pressed the issue with Bush. Michael Wang, the governor's spokesman, says the state's accountability program already meets and, in some cases, exceeds the federal law. "We continue to remain hopeful that the administration sees fit to give some flexibility," Wang said.
Officials in both Nebraska and Louisiana said they expect their states to meet the Jan. 31 deadline and are hopeful, but unsure, that they can make the May 1 deadline.
Connecticut, a state that historically ranks high in student test scores, also has major concerns with the AYP and with the way the Education Department is "digging in its heels" in the way it interprets the law, David Larson, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public Schools Superintendents, said.
Up to 200 of Connecticut's 1,000 schools could be deemed "failing" within a year under the new law and that number is sure to grow, Larson said.
Despite the time crunch, some are encouraged by the five state plans that the Bush administration approved last week. The five plans are all quite different. This raises some hope that the administration will give some leeway in how it interprets the states' plans, said Bruce Hunter, director of public policy for the American Association of School Administrators.
But Hunter calls the law "fundamentally flawed" because it is "designed to promote and punish failure." Hunter predicted that within 10 years every school would be deemed "failing" under the new law because of the strict requirements