March 23, 2004
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Good evening. I have a deep appreciation for this organization and its work. You have provided outstanding leadership in education. Americans owe you a debt of gratitude for your advocacy and commitment to excellence in education.
But my personal gratitude goes deeper. Some of the best public servants in the Department of Education have been associated with you, such our Acting Deputy Secretary Gene Hickok, Assistant Secretary Ray Simon and so many other keen minds. They continue your leadership and dedication. And they have taken that vision into every corner of America and beyond.
For example, Gene has been tenacious in traveling to remote areas to discuss the needs of rural schools. And, of course, I occasionally hear about Pennsylvania.
Ray, who spoke to you this morning, was just featured in the Washington Post. Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee was quoted as calling him "the quintessential problem solver." He is that, and more. Ray is a trusted and credible voice with teachers and local school districts.
I have come to value each of these men as a friend and colleague. They are a credit to the council.
One reason for our familiarity is that No Child Left Behind has been a joint project for all of us. We are now two years into the process of education reform. It has been central to your work and to mine.
In many school districts and some states, implementation has proceeded right on schedule. There have been fantastic cooperation, candid assessments, shifting of resources and general satisfaction with the law and its direction. I am pleased with the pace of implementation in those locations. I thank those who have worked so hard to rapidly implement this law.
But there is a different story elsewhere. There has been much concern about what I call the three Fs: federalism, funding and flexibility. This leads some to believe the process is foolish or futile.
Yes, I know there has been much confusion, misinformation, mythology and even tall tales told about the law. You know this too. You have experienced the questions and the controversy. You know that the law is sometimes hard to explain. And many people jumped to conclusions before actually reviewing the law itself.
In my view, this is one of the most misunderstood laws in our nation's history. Its provisions for local control, local flexibility and state standards have been ignored or given short shrift. There are historic levels of federal funding, yet the money has been dismissed and the law unfairly labeled an "unfunded mandate." And the children themselves seem to be a sidebar in a struggle when they are the onlythe onlyreason for this effort.
I believe that we can eliminate this confusion by listening to each other and working together. And I mean thatI need to listen to you, and I hope you will work with me.
That is one reason I'm delighted to be here tonight. I believe that together we can help each other. This is a workable law. It is a good law. It is a necessary law to guarantee a quality education for all children, by making the education system more inclusive, fair and just. It is a law that will help preserve our country's economic and political leadership throughout the world. Perhaps more than any other law, this one is our best hope for the future of our nation.
We don't need to change this law. Rather, it needs to be given a chance to work. I have heard reports that some of you may be writing a letter to me expressing the need to change the law. I understand your concerns. I am willing to work with you. But, respectfully, I disagree with you; the problem is not the law.
Let me explain by addressing three common issuesthe three Fs: federalism, funding, and flexibility.
As you know, the No Child Left Behind law requires the states to set their own standards for teacher quality, for testing, for measurements of adequate yearly progress and for many other areas of educational accountability. The actual standards are determined by the states themselves.
Yes, the law itself is a federal law, but it is nothing more than a framework. It is an outgrowth and restructuring of earlier versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which first became law in 1965. Elementary and secondary education remains the traditional province of state and local governments.
True, taking federal funds under No Child Left Behind requires that states actually set standards and enforce them. But that is a reasonable expectation for national taxpayers and a mechanism for both you and me to find the schools in need of improvement and to target additional resources to students. The standards are nothing more than the state's assurance that the state itself will do the job of successfully educating its children. There is nothing unreasonable about that as an expectation or as a condition for federal funding. We are only asking that the state do its job and do it on its own terms. But to do it!
There are those who believe we have dumped an "unfunded mandate" on them. I imagine some earlier speakers have made this claim, throwing around assumptions about added costs and trying to link preexisting financial needs to No Child Left Behind.
In my view, as well as the views of several experts, this law is fully funded. We have calculated the money necessary to implement the law and provided it. More federal education funding has been provided by this administration than any previous one. Funding is at historic levels. For example, in President Bush's FY 2005 budget, funding for education would be $57.3 billion, an increase of 36 percent since 2001.
Let me show you why this isn't an "unfunded mandate." Simply parse the phrase "unfunded mandate."
At more than $50 billion of federal assistance, and much of it directed at No Child Left Behind, there is nothing "unfunded" here. Overall, the United States invested more than $500 billion in education last year. The term "unfunded" is simply inappropriate and clearly wrong as evidenced by several studies that found the money is there. Massachusetts State School Board Chairman James Peyser and economist Robert Costrell said the money is there; the General Accounting Office said the law is not a mandate; a study out of New Hampshire said the same thing, as did a study by the nonprofit group "Accountability Works."
There is no federal "mandate" except this: we have asked that fourth-graders read at a fourth-grade level, that children read and compute math at grade level, that they should have the skills we expect. That should be the goal of public education anyway. It's common sense. We didn't add a burden that the states did not already have, if they really wanted to provide a quality education for all children.
But it is easy for confusion and misunderstanding to overwhelm the facts. Let me give you a recent example. During a visit to a school in Cleveland, Ohio, I made reference to requirements for implementing No Child Left Behind and the funding appropriated for that implementation.
My comments, as reported in the media, were taken out of context. I need to clarify them to avoid misinterpretation. If a state decides to accept the federal funds, then it's required to implement the law in its entirety. This is nothing new.
We believeand these four independent studies agreethat the funds requested by the president and appropriated by Congress will allow states to fully implement the law. The president's latest budget request again reflects this commitment to support your efforts in the states. There is no unfunded mandate.
Another area of confusion concerns flexibility under the law. There is much flexibility built into the law. This is not a "one size fits all" law, as some have argued. There are important provisions that allow state and local governments to shift other federal education money to meet their particular needs at the local level.
This law is an important opportunity for state and local administrators to better target resources precisely because of the flexibility built into the legislation. When I was a superintendent I would have welcomed this flexibility. I am certain many superintendents feel the same way.
And we have been working on regulatory actions that will help state and local school districts. Since passage, I have worked on a timeline to utilize the flexibility in the law, while at the same time holding states accountable. This is a balancing effort, and that process of balanced policy development is often missed or misunderstood.
For example, I recently announced that some special needs students would be allowed to take a test that matches their abilities, thereby allowing states to meet statutory requirements and best serve the needs of these most challenged students. States can work with the Department to make the special education regulations best fit within their own system. So far only one state has come forward. We are happy to work with others.
In addition, I have announced new policies for English language learners. Our new policy provides a much-needed one-year transition for our schools for new second-language students. This change allows schools one more year to prepare these students to learn in English. It benefits both students and schools. And, under the new policy, schools can continue to count these students toward the "adequate yearly progress" measurement for two additional years after they have become English proficient.
These regulations build upon the nearly 40 areas of flexibility that the Department of Education recently identified in the "Charting the Course" document issued earlier this year. I encourage you to read it on our Web site if you haven't already. Also, I hope you will notice our recent release on the Web of over 50 guidance letters sent to states. These letters further demonstrate the flexibility given to states.
Two weeks ago, I announced regulations concerning same-sex classes and schools, making it easier for schools to offer a single-sex environment. It gives students and parents more choices. Schools need to have this option. If parents and schools believe a single-sex environment will help their children learn, then they should be able to exercise that choice.
And, last week I announced a new policy about highly qualified teachers that will help clarify any confusion and give even more flexibility to state and local officials. It will now be easier for teachers to demonstrate that they have the subject expertise so critical to teach America's youth.
Our work is far from finished. We are serious about making sure that there is equity in the distribution of highly qualified teachers. In the past, poor and minority students have had less-prepared teachers than their counterparts. I was struck by a poll we fielded recently which found that minority parents were more likely to understand the importance of science education and encourage their children to take science than their white counterparts. Yet there is an achievement gap in science going the opposite direction. Clearly there is a disconnect between what is happening in school and in the classroom. Part of that is because minority students, who tend to make up the majority of students in our inner-city schools, end up with the least qualified teachers. So we are undertaking some important new efforts, including helping states to develop more effective methods to collect data about teacher quality.
Success will also depend on enforcement of the law. We are serious about enforcement. We have made this very clear. For example, the Department has imposed conditions on grant awards for 26 states with missing or incomplete data on the percentage of classes taught by teachers who are highly qualified. We have explained that the Department is prepared to delay the release of its July 1st funding until the conditions are satisfied.
A poet once said, "In today walks tomorrow." I believe that. The future is written by our actions right now. Our work together will not be easy. With each deadline, we will face formidable reaction. And in this political season, there are those who will find opportunistic advantages in undermining the law. We stand on a razor's edge. There are those who wish us to fail.
But we will be successful. Yes, the process of reform is demanding. But it can bring out our very best.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that we learn much about the character of people in times of conflict. I think he meant more than discovering who will stand fast. He also meant that we see into each other's souls and hearts.
Through our work together, we stand as witnesses to each other. And there are times when we will not agree. But this is a historic moment. Future generations will look back on our efforts. I trust they will find we had conviction, courage and commitment. I hope they will judge us compassionate, cooperative and conciliatory. I know they will see our efforts guided by a common effort to craft an inclusive, fair and successful education system. And I hope we find the very best in each other, as we work to make our education system the very best for our children.
Millions of students are counting on us. Their future hangs in the balance. I am confident that we will not let them down. Thank you, again, for inviting me to share these thoughts with you.