U.S. education secretary continues campaign for `No Child' changes

Spellings appears in city at conference of educators

April 19, 2005|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings continued her campaign yesterday to garner support for changes to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, telling hundreds of educators gathered in Baltimore that she remains open to more ways of relaxing standards.

But the secretary's 15-minute speech at the National Association of Elementary School Principals conference disappointed educators who hoped to hear more details about her pledge to be more accommodating to their concerns about the three- year-old education reform law.

In her appearance at the Baltimore Convention Center, Spellings discussed a recent decision by the Department of Education to loosen rules that govern how states measure academic progress among students with disabilities. She also promised $14 million to help states figure out the changed policies.

"I'm open to new ideas, but I won't budge on the central premise of the law," said the former education adviser to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

No Child Left Behind has been under fire in some states. Connecticut intends to file a federal lawsuit over the measure. Utah lawmakers are trying to pass a bill that would give priority to local education goals.

Critics of the law say the federal government has not provided enough support and money to help states achieve the law's goal that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Schools must test students once a year and are penalized if they do not show continual improvement.

Yesterday, Spellings repeated praise of the law as a "landmark" because it forces schools for the first time to report test scores for disadvantaged students, including minorities, non-native English speakers and the poor and disabled.

Her speech was occasionally punctuated with polite applause from the audience. At the conclusion of the speech, more than half of those attending stood in an ovation.

Organizers of the 4,500- educator conference said the Department of Education requested that reporters be barred from Spellings' appearance. But a Sun reporter who had registered for the conference in advance was able to gain entry.

Federal education officials denied closing the event to reporters, laying the blame on conference organizers.

"The association decided it wasn't open-press," said Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the department. "It certainly wasn't coming from me in our press office."

Some principals said afterward that Spellings did not address problems that schools are facing in carrying out the federal mandate.

"To be honest, there wasn't very much of substance there," said Rick Gregory, principal of Roberts Elementary School in Fond du Lac, Wis.

Gregory, whose school has a growing population of disabled pupils, said assessments will not be meaningful unless they are tailored to children's different abilities and potential. He also said the law's ultimate goal is unrealistic.

"I know we won't have 100 percent [of students proficient] in 2014, just because of the nature of my students," he said.

Gail Cropper, principal of Washington Elementary School in Trenton, N.J., said she was disappointed by the speech and wished that the audience of school principals had been allowed to engage in a question-and-answer session.

"I really didn't hear anything for me to applaud for or get excited about," said Cropper, who was named a Principal of the Year in New Jersey in 2004.

Cropper has been appealing to her state's education officials over what she considers an unfair rule under the law. The school's test scores have been dragged down by the low achievement of two dozen children who live in the school's attendance area but are enrolled elsewhere because they require special-education services.

Mary Ann Delate, a first-grade teacher at Washington Elementary, said she was expecting "more meat" in Spellings' speech, considering she was addressing an audience of professional educators.

"This was more like a political rah-rah," Delate said.

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