The flexibility factor

February 17, 2005

THE NEW secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, is sending some welcome signals that her department may take a more pragmatic approach than that of her predecessor in implementing the No Child Left Behind law. In some recent appearances and interviews, Ms. Spellings has let it be known that states seeking at least some flexibility in the onerous law may find more sympathy at the department, instead of having to complain to Congress. She's not flinching on NCLB's core strategy of annual assessments, but Ms. Spellings is right to try to work with states to iron out differences.

Her department has already cleared up a misunderstanding with North Dakota about whether some 4,000 veteran teachers there were "highly qualified," as the law requires. In a significant policy shift, she has acknowledged that some states, such as New York, suffer from overcrowding in high-performing schools, and therefore may not be able to offer transfers to students in low-performing schools as required under NCLB's regulations. The fact that more students in low-performing schools are opting to be tutored at federal expense rather than insisting on being transferred helps explain her more lenient attitude.

But Ms. Spellings is standing pat on NCLB's basic requirements to test students in grades three to eight annually, to eliminate achievement gaps among different groups of students and to hold states accountable for the results. Several states are still chafing under the law's core mandates.

This week, the Utah House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that requires state officials to pay more attention to local, rather than federal, education goals and to spend only a minimal amount of state money to implement federal programs. In the face of such threatened mutiny, Ms. Spellings has her work cut out for her. She would do well to remember that to achieve meaningful results across 50 states, flexibility may be her most valuable tool.

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