Federal Dateline

Raise Your Hand If You Care About Reauthorization

by Mary Kusler

With the school year well under way, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act continues to putter along. As a runner, I often use analogies from this activity and this reauthorization process provides an easy one: We are training for a marathon, not a sprint

This reauthorization will need long, continuous effort by administrators in order to make a lasting impact on the final policy as opposed to coming in and advocating hard at the tail end of the reauthorization. It is easier to get your ideas in at the front end of the process rather then the back end.

While AASA believes the political forces at work in Washington will prevent the reauthorization from being completed prior to the 2008 presidential election, that does not prevent the bills introduced in the meantime from serving as the framework of ideas that will eventually become the final law. This is a high-stakes reauthorization. Everyone involved in the process has a strong opinion about how the new law should look. The more intense the process gets, the more ideas compete with one another.

With that in mind, it is hard to sit this one out on the sidelines.

Surprising Disagreements
There are several examples of competing ideas. Discussion about using multiple sources of evidence in the assessment system has been quite intense. With many of the national education associations, including AASA, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, taking a strong stance in favor of multiple measures, we were surprised to learn of opposition.

Several civil rights organizations, along with the Education Trust, issued a letter back in July to not only express their opposition to the idea of multiple measures but also voiced the concern that multiple measures would allow school districts to get around accountability.

Another area of debate involves codifying the 1 and 2 percent regulations regarding special education assessments. Once again, AASA, along with most national education associations, has taken a position to let the individualized education plan determine how a student with a disability is assessed.

But this time we are running up against the strong efforts of the special education advocate community who fear the elimination of the percentage caps would entice schools to over-identify students into special education and give all special education students an easier assessment. This is a hard message to overcome without our own grassroots activity.

In July alone, I spoke at two statewide superintendent conferences. At both of those conferences I asked how many administrators had taken the time to call their member of Congress and weigh in on the ESEA reauthorization. I was shocked to see not a single raised hand in either audience. AASA can continue to visit congressional offices on a daily basis and advocate on behalf of school administrators. However, unless our efforts are echoed when the congressional representatives and their staff members visit back in their state, our efforts are lost.

Growing Intensity
As we continue with reauthorization, the fights are only going to get more intense and more tempting for members to make decisions without considering the local impact of the policies. As educators, we must constantly try to educate elected officials and especially their staffs. So many education staffers have had little direct contact with schools since they themselves went through school. They need to learn how education has changed since their graduation day.

Invite the education staffers from Washington to come out to your school district to spend a day shadowing a student. Let them see the quality and variety of special education services your district provides. Allow them to observe English language learners as they develop their English skills and learn subject content. Each of these experiences would have a profound impact on the staff when they create federal policy.

Educating staff does not happen overnight but administrators should develop working relationships with these individuals. If you could dedicate just 15 minutes a month to calling the education staff in Washington, it would have a profound impact. During these calls, you could share what are the new and exciting things within the school district and any potential ESEA concerns you might have.

Staff members, in turn, will have the opportunity to ask you questions about the reauthorization’s impact. All in all, this is a surefire way to ensure the voices of school administrators will be heard from and, more importantly, taken seriously during the critical decisions about ESEA’s future.

Mary Kusler is the assistant director of government relations at AASA. E-mail: mkusler@aasa.org