March 29, 2004
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Thank you. It isn't easy to speak after the first lady. I admire her vitality and vision. She is a wonderful, stalwart advocate for education, both in this country and abroad. We are fortunate to have her leadership and inspiration.
I also want to acknowledge the leadership of each participant here today. As a former school board member, I know the many demands and expectations you face. I understand the many pressures that go with the job. I also know that you are looking to my Department for dialogue, support and partnership. So I have ordered the Department to engage in an unprecedented effort to meet with school board members, administrators, teachers and students. I want our dialogue be productive on both sides, helping you to better educate our children. I believe that our collective cooperation can help smooth the way for education reform. I know that my Department will be stronger and better informed because of our work with you.
Passage of No Child Left Behind presented all of us with tremendous opportunities. Education is now a front-page issue in your cities and nationally. We have produced a deeper discussion of education issues than at any other time in my memory. No Child Left Behind has been a joint project for all of us. It has been central to your work and to mine. We are now two years into the process of education reform.
In many school districts and some states, implementation has proceeded right on schedule. There has 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.
It has been more difficult in some other districts. But I believe we can find a way to work together to implement this law.
One problem has been the proliferation of misinformation and confusion. This is one of the most misunderstood laws in our nation's history. There are some days I put down the newspaper absolutely stunned by a new interpretation or new invention.
In fairness, the law is sometimes hard to understand, hard to explain. And many people jumped to conclusions before actually reviewing the law itself. They projected new assumptions, costly add-ons and creative calculations. Legal wizards conjured up non-existent mandates.
We know the results: panic, bitter words, hard feelings, accusations and threats. I believe we need to calm the turbulent waters. This is a moment when we need our best efforts, our most enlightened vision, our courage to accept change and our willingness to place our children's welfare before political gamesmanship. We need to work together as never before, and we need to accelerate that partnership as we approach the next round of statutory deadlines in the law.
This law can be the salvation of school districts and state education departments. I believe that we can eliminate the confusion by listening to each other and working together. I believe that together we can help each other. This is a workable law. It is a good law. There is much flexibility. It is a necessary law to guarantee a high-quality education for all children, making the educational 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.
Let me explain by addressing three common issues: federalism, funding and flexibility.
Let's start with federalism. As you know, the No Child Left Behind Act 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 of 1965. Elementary and secondary education remains the traditional province of state and local governments.
True, taking the federal funds under No Child Left Behind requires that states actually set standards and enforce them. The standards are those set by the state.
I do think it is a reasonable expectation for taxpayers to ask states to set standards. I would think every state would agree. The state sets the standards to identify schools that are in need of improvement and to target additional resources to those schools and their students. We ask only that states have such a mechanism to target funds to schools that need help.
Let me emphasize this point: The standards are nothing more than the state's assurance that the state will do its job of ensuring that its children have access to a high-quality education. 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. This is what the law says.
Now, let's talk about funding. There are those who believe we have dumped an "unfunded mandate" on them. This usually involves assumptions about added costs and trying to link pre-existent financial needs to No Child Left Behind.
In my view, as well as several independent experts, this law is fully funded. We have calibrated the money necessary to implement the law and provided it. Federal education funding itself is larger now than in any previous administration. It is at historic levels. The term "unfunded" is simply inappropriate, 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; as did a study by "Accountability Works." Please note that these are all independent experts who do not lobby for increased federal funds.
There is no federal "mandate" except this: We have asked that children be able to read and do math computations at grade level, that they have the skills needed to perform at grade level. 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 bear, if they really wanted to provide a high-quality education for all children.
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 school board member, I would have welcomed this flexibility. I am certain many board members 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 progressive 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, the law was passed in January 2002. By June 2003, all 50 states had approved accountability blueprints. They put them into action at the start of the school year last fall. So, thus far, we have had a little over one semester to work with the states under their accountability plans. This isn't a lot of time. But, since the school year started, I have issued a series of new policies designed to help states implement the law and ultimately to help children to learn. Our implementation has been rapid, even blistering, in comparison to the typical regulatory process.
For example, in December 2003, I 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 better 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. States can submit evidence indicating a need for additional students to take assessments geared to alternative standards. So far, only two states have submitted proposals. I encourage other states that might also benefit to submit proposals.
In February 2004, I then announced new policies for English-language learners. Our new policy provides a much-needed one-year transition for new English speakers. This common-sense 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.
Three 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 the option. If parents and schools believe a single-sex environment will help their children learn, then they should be able to exercise that choice. For decades, private schools have offered that choice to parents who can afford it--we want to offer that choice to others.
And, two weeks ago 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 teaching America's youth.
I should add that states have until April 1st to submit revisions to accountability plans, and we look forward to working with those states that engage.
As you know, No Child Left Behind requires all students to participate in the state's achievement tests. At least 95 percent of the students must participate, as measured by total school population and by subgroup, in order to meet "Adequate Yearly Progress." This is not some arbitrary policy. It is the heart of No Child Left Behind--accountability. It ensures that indeed every child counts. The only way that we can help children who are struggling, who are in danger of being left behind, is to find them. That is why they must be assessed. Once they are identified, we can help them.
States already have significant authority in calculating participation rates. But we are paying attention to the practical implications of the law. We have heard about the challenges of the participation rate from our outreach to several states. I recently had an interesting visit to rural Minnesota where this issue was discussed. States understand that the law is designed to make sure that students are comprehensively tested and every student's results counted. But they are concerned about medical emergencies or other factors that may lead to less than 95 percent participation.
So today I am announcing a new policy that will allow exemption of students who encounter unavoidable medical circumstances or other absences that make testing impossible, even with make-up dates. In this rare circumstance, these students, by themselves, would not force a school to be identified for improvement.
I also am announcing a new policy that schools may average participation rates to include one or two of the previous years, as long as the average meets or exceeds 95 percent for the year in question.
We are listening and making common-sense adjustments. But we are not willing to sidestep or ignore enforcement of the provisions 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. Why are we doing this? Because we know the importance of high-quality teachers to student achievement.
This is the time to step forward and to fix our course into the future. Our focus must always be the children.
I cannot help but look back on the past 50 years. I grew up in segregated Mississippi. Millions of children knew what it meant to be left behind. And despite the best efforts of our teachers, we were denied equal educational opportunity, as the Supreme Court acknowledged in Brown v. Board of Education.
Brown didn't solve all problems. Ralph Bunche, who won the Nobel Prize in 1950, was viewed as one of the great diplomats of his time. But he had harsh words for the division and hidden segregation that remained after Brown. He said that America had created a "ghetto" for black children--an inescapable ghetto that limited, chained and enslaved children. It wasn't a physical ghetto, but a prison of the mind, the soul and the heart. Opportunity and freedom were lost.
I worry that there are similar ghettos created for special-needs students, Hispanic students, English-learning students or low-income students. We must make education more inclusive, breaking down the barriers that hold back millions of disadvantaged children.
The schoolhouse doors are open, but that is not enough. We must make certain that our students are actually educated--every single one of them. Millions of students are counting on us. Their future, and the nation's future, hangs in the balance.
I am confident that we will not let them down. Mrs. Bush's efforts to improve literacy are a great contribution to our nation and the world. No Child Left Behind is also a great contribution--a gift. It will make American education more successful, fair and just. It can be our vision of the future, if we have the courage and wisdom to embrace it. It can be the vehicle for a more equitable and productive educational system, if we have the will to make it so.
I ask you to continue our partnership and our dialogue. You and I, together, can transform our schools, making them even better. We can replace division with unity. We can guarantee excellence for all. That is a great, daunting task. But together, we can give the gift of education to every child--every single one of them.
Thank you, again, for inviting me to share these thoughts with you.