Education Debate Set to Begin In Congress As States Battle For Control

By: - April 3, 2001 12:00 am

Who should control our schools? That is the philosophical question simmering just below the surface of the looming Capitol Hill debate on President George W. Bush’s education proposals. Over the past two months, state education officials have been visiting Congress to express their strong concerns about folding the President’s proposals into the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

The debate pits state and federal officials in conflict over three elements of the Bush plan:

  • tests for every student in grades 3-8 every year
  • use of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) as a national standard
  • plans to send the federal government’s share of education costs to the states in the form of block grants.  

Most of President Bush’s education blueprint has been incorporated into the reauthorization of ESEA, and much of his plan has been accepted by the US Senate’s Education Committee. The House Education and the Workforce Committee’s bill, “No Child Left Behind” also embodies the Bush education agenda. Now the reforms await a floor debate, expected to begin in late April or May.

When state education board members lobbied Congress they urged lawmakers not to force states to test reading and math in grades 3-8, saying such a mandate would be intrusive. Because the proposal directs who, what, when and for what purpose states will test those grades, many states would be forced to drastically alter their existing testing systems to comply, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE).

They say such tests would increase the role of the federal government by holding states accountable for the performance of students on the tests.

A state that fails to improve would lose a portion of its federal funds and would be required to help its failing schools. The poorest students at failing schools would be able to use the per student the federal government provides in Title 1 the largest share of federal education spending in the ESEA – as a voucher to attend another public school or a private school under the proposal.

At the winter meeting of the National Governors Association (NGA), governors supported increased testing, but only as long as the federal government helps pay for it.

Governors have also accepted, albeit more reluctantly, the idea of sanctions if improvements lag. In exchange they want federal money in the form of block grants allowing them maximum flexibility.

“At the state level, flexibility allows us opportunities to think about new ways of administering programs or delivering services to meet a defined goal, or improving services through innovation,” said Lisa Graham Keegan, Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The Bush plan would consolidate funding for federal programs, giving states and local school districts greater decision-making power over how to spend the money. Republicans on a US House education subcommittee said that school choice, or vouchers and block grants, are the crux of the Bush reforms. But Democrats are strongly opposed to the voucher plan.


Many governors and education officials fear that the federal government will mandate testing in grades 3-8, but won’t pony up the cash to help states pay for them.

These programs are “robbing states of their right and responsibility to set priorities and develop polices that best meet local needs,” the NGA’s new education policy statement reads. “Although unfunded federal mandates may reflect wellintentioned policy goals, they often impose substantial cost and regulatory burdens on states.”

“If you are going to hold governors to a higher level of accountability you have to make sure they have the resources so that they can make a difference,” said Frank Shafroth, Director of State and Federal Relations for NGA.

The Federal government provides about seven cents out of every education dollar and gives 95 percent of that support directly to local school districts, bypassing governors and state legislatures completely. Shafroth says that’s like telling a parent to give a child an allowance, then providing a few cents toward the allowance, but holding the parent responsible for changing the kid’s behavior. “You don’t have much control over it,” he said.

“We would like to see all mandates funded completely,” Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, told

Just 15 states currently test in grades 3-8, but only three test in both English and math each year.

“The testing provisions establish a uniform assessment standard for every state and does not reflect an appreciation for the work and expense states have undertaken in assessments to date as part of their decade-long efforts in standards-based reform,” according to a NASBE statement.

The cost to states for developing, administering and scoring tests currently in place for 2001 totals million.. This figure does not include the cost of reporting the scores, analyzing scores by race, ethnicity, disability and socio-economic status, or storing the data on computer systems, as required in the Bush plan. Only three states currently analyze and report testing information this way.

“A lot of states don’t have the data collection or management systems set up to identify and track student test scores,” said David Griffith, NASBE’s director of governmental affairs. “Storing hundreds of thousands of names and other data is a huge undertaking,” he added. “Don’t force states to raise taxes for something the federal government is telling us we have to do.”


To ensure that student performance is improving and that each state’s tests are rigorous, President Bush has proposed that every state participate in the US Education Department’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

In 1998, 43 states and jurisdictions volunteered to participate in NAEP which tests reading in grades 4 and 8 and writing in grade 8.

Bush’s plan would make it mandatory for every state to participate in NAEP in grades 4 and 8 so that student progress could be measured against the state’s own tests. Bush says his budget would provide funds to help states pay for administering NAEP.

“Confirming the state review of state’s standards is a new role for NAEP,” the NGA document states. “Rewards or sanctions in any particular state should not be based solely on NAEP results but should rely on the state’s own accountability system.”

Arizona’s Keegan said the federal government should “use NAEP as a sunshine instrument. If the state scores are up and NAEP is up – great, if the state scores are up and NAEP is not that is okay too, but if both are going down then something is wrong.”

Bruce Hunter, director of government affairs for the American Association of School Administrators (AASA )said, “The states built content standards based on conversations within each state. States test those standards. NAEP has built its test on its own content standards set by its national board. I’m not sure to what extent they will overlap. You could do really well on the state test and miss something on NAEP and then you look bad”.

Conservatives worry that the use of NAEP as a national standard will turn it into a de facto national test, and if teachers begin to teach to the test, that will lead to a national curriculum.

“There is a distinct difference in what the American people think values ought to be. Those of us from rural areas and the Midwest are concerned that coastal values will be thrust upon us by a national test,” said US Rep.Van Hilleary (R-Tenn).

“It is insulting that in debates those of us who are concerned about testing are considered to be against standards,” said Rep. Mark E. Souder (R-Ind). Both are members of the Education Committee.

Governors are also worried, that NAEP could become a national test. They have asked the federal government to give them “maximum flexibility in designing state accountability systems” because they believe it to be critical to balancing local control of education and state responsibility for reforms.

Shafroth says governors support using NAEP as a benchmark because “it can tell them how their state is doing compared to other states. But different states have different needs and requirements and it should not be used to censor states or reward states.”

Proponents of national standards argue that to be competitive in the global marketplace standardization is a necessity. “Unless we measure education, we stand to fall behind in the global economy,” said Kurt Landgraf, President of the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey. The nonprofit company produces NAEP as well as the SAT, GRE, GMAT and TOEFL.


When Republicans took over Congress in 1994, they began pushing block grants for education. President Bush’s plan to increase flexibility in exchange for more accountability has repackaged the idea as “Charter States.”

Block grants would pit state boards of education against their own governors, critics say, because most state constitutions hold state education boards or agencies responsible for funding schools.

Griffith argues against block grants. “Education funding should continue to go through the state boards as it has in the past. State boards are appointed by the governors and clearly have an understanding of their goals and policies.”

But Shafroth says because governors have agreed to show results for the federal money, it really isn’t a typical block grant, but a “performance partnership” instead. “We want more flexibility because of the radical differences between states and their education needs. Block grants basically say ‘give us the money and trust us’, this says give us greater flexibility and in return we will be held accountable.”

Griffith calls this distinction disingenuous. “The governors will still have the power to put the money wherever they want. Yes, they will be held quote unquote accountable for it, but it still gives the governors an awful lot of authority and flexibility for delivering money where they want it to go.”

Some educators are worried that legislatures and governors who are more responsive to suburban concerns than inner city and rural voters will end up sending most of the federal dollars into programs in their areas.

“Targeting means you take money away from people with power and give it to people without power and that is hard to do in politics,” Hunter said.

But the governors have requested that Title 1 funding presently targeted to the poorest and most disadvantaged students, continue to be targeted.

The original purpose of federal education funding through the ESEA was to boost school aid for the most disadvantaged students.

“If we lose this fight then ESEA isn’t worth the paper it is written on,” Hunter said.

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