- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings eased federal guidelines the same day California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked her to relax certain school requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act, a feat some of his fellow governors haven’t been able to accomplish.

Mr. Schwarzenegger met with the secretary March 8 in Washington and asked her to limit the number of California school districts labeled as needing improvement for low student achievement. Mrs. Spellings immediately approved his request.

“Prior to the secretary’s meeting with Governor Schwarzenegger, California made a decision to make the changes needed to follow the [NCLB] law. That made negotiating the details easier,” said Raymond J. Simon, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, who joined Mrs. Spellings in her discussions with various governors over the past several weeks.

California was allowed to join about 20 states using the so-called “Tennessee Accountability Model,” which labels a school as low-performing only if students in various subgroups — such as those based on income, race or sex — fail to reach achievement targets in reading and mathematics across all grades for two years in a row.

The state had wrangled with Washington for months by singling out students from low-income families to gauge overall school progress on standardized tests, which is a departure from the NCLB. By giving precedence to the progress of poor children, the state said just 14 of 1,000 school districts were in need of improvement last year, while 310 would be labeled low-performing under stricter federal standards. Under the Tennessee model, 184 California school districts are labeled as needing improvement from testing in 2003 and 2004.

Most states are looking for ways to test reading and math ability of children with disabilities and low English proficiency separately, so their performance does not pull down a school’s overall academic progress. But other governors who have negotiated personally with Mrs. Spellings were told to wait on their requests for greater flexibility under the NCLB.

Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. met with the secretary a week after Mr. Schwarzenegger, but was told he would have to wait for a decision on state requests for relaxed requirements, even though both houses of Utah’s Republican-controlled Legislature were poised to tell Washington next month in a special session to jettison NCLB altogether in favor of state education standards.

The same was true for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, lieutenant governor under then-Gov. George Bush, and for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president’s brother, whose alternative methods for measuring yearly student progress have been rebuffed by the department.

Mrs. Spellings told both governors close to the president their leniency requests are on hold as the department assesses possible repercussions across the country.

“Each state has its own set of unique challenges and objectives that require our careful consideration,” Mr. Simon said.

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