Kansas school districts are joining a national effort to rein in the power of the U.S. Department of Education to interfere with state and local authority over public schools.
At a meeting of the National School Boards Association in Washington last week, Kansas officials joined with their peers from around the country in pushing for a federal law that would restrain the department's ability to impose new regulations on states or local school boards, or to attach conditions for receiving federal education funds.
“I think we're getting to where state and federal legislation controls a lot of what we do,” said Fred Patton, a member of the Seaman school board in Shawnee County and past president of the Kansas Association of School Boards. “Everything from what we feed our kids to what we teach our kids, virtually everything is controlled by some sort of regulation nowadays.”
Patton was among several Kansas school officials who attended the NSBA conference last week where the proposed legislation, known as the Local Educational Agency Governance, Flexibility, and Efficiency Act of 2013, was unveiled.
Fear and resentment over federal intrusion into local matters is nothing new in education. But school officials say they have good reason to be concerned about what may lie ahead in the next year or two when Congress is expected to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as No Child Left Behind.
That law, enacted in 2002, tied federal education funding to a mandate that all public schools give standardized tests in reading and math each year, and required them to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward achieving the goal of 100 percent proficiency in those subjects by 2014.
The law was scheduled for reauthorization in 2007, but six years later neither the House nor Senate has produced a bill to do that. So instead, the Department of Education in 2011 began offering states waivers from the 2014 deadline, on the condition that states implement a host of other education reforms favored by the Obama administration.
Those include, among other things, requirements to adopt tougher academic standards for reading and math aimed at preparing students for college and the workplace, and to tie teacher and principal evaluations with student growth and achievement.
Kansas received a provisional waiver last summer after it agreed to meet those conditions.
“The term we used was 'prescribed flexibility,'” said Tom Krebs, a lobbyist with the Kansas Association of School Boards who also attended the conference in Washington. “We got out of AYP, and we got out of the 2014 goal. But what we got was a mandated evaluation language, including student achievement being part of the evaluation. That's the one that's providing the most angst for us.”
But now there is concern that if Congress moves to pass its own reauthorization act, states and local school districts will be thrown into a lurch.
“The concern,” Patton said, “is that the further down the road we get with these waivers — and every state's going in a little bit different direction — when they do reauthorize No Child Left Behind, is that going to make us all snap back in line to some uniform federal guideline?”
Under the proposed bill, the Department of Education would be prohibited from enacting new rules, regulations or conditions attached to federal funding that conflict with the power and authority of local school districts to control their own educational programs, curricula and budgets in accordance with state laws.
It would also prohibit the agency from imposing regulations that carry additional costs on states or local districts unless those costs are fully paid for with federal funds. And it would grant additional oversight power to House and Senate committees that deal with education.
One of those would be the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, on which Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas serves.
Roberts' press secretary, Sarah Little, said Tuesday that the committee hopes to pass a reauthorization bill during the current biennial session of Congress, but it's uncertain whether that will happen in 2013.
She also said Roberts is generally supportive of the proposed bill being pushed by local school boards, but that the bill has not yet been formally introduced.