Are Your Schools Competitive?

Are Your Schools Competitive?

That may be the $790 million question this summer. A new federal grant program doesn't have applicat

Educators still trying to come to grips with No Child Left Behind will soon face another challenge. Although this new program will start in four months, no one knows the rules yet, but everyone knows what's at stake $790 million in grants.

The new Academic Competitiveness Grant program promises grants to low-income, full-time college students who are U.S. citizens, are eligible for a Pell Grant, and meet federally specified criteria regarding academic performance. But the program, inserted at the last minute in the Deficit Reduction Act that Congress enacted in February, also raises questions about possible federal involvement in setting local high school curricula.

Among other stipulations, the legislation specifies that students enrolled for the first time in their first year of college, or who have been accepted for enrollment, must have completed "a rigorous secondary school program of study established by a state or local education agency and recognized as such" by the U.S. Secretary of Education, currently Margaret Spellings.

Undefined so far, however, is what a "rigorous" program of study will be or what will be required so that the education secretary will recognize it. "The law creating this initiative provides few details to guide implementation, and there is almost no legislative history to help the Department of Education write the regulations necessary to turn the statute into an operational program," David Ward, president of the American Council of Education, wrote to the presidents of other education associations in Washington.

A Complicated Challenge

How a new program will work in practice is usually spelled out in a formal rulemaking process that federal agencies conduct to write regulations to implement legislation. That will begin later, but Yvonne Smith, a DOE spokeswoman, says the department will not have time to do it before July 1, when the program begins. Instead, "we're beginning to sit down with governors, state chiefs of education and local education agencies to discuss what works in their regions," Smith says.

No one has criticized the objectives of the program. "The interest in encouraging more students especially low-income students to take rigorous courses in high school is clear and unambiguous. So is the desirability of encouraging more American-born students to major in math, science and engineering," says Ward.

" What we have to question is why they jammed this in at the last minute. Was it to give the administration effective control of the country's high schools? That's what it does and we think it's an awful mistake." -Bruce Hunter, associate executive director, American Association of School Administrators

" What we have to question is why they jammed this in at the last minute. Was it to give the administration effective control of the country's high schools? That's what it does and we think it's an awful mistake." -Bruce Hunter, associate executive director, American Association of School Administrators

"This is an important and welcome development. The central concern is that it is hard to imagine a more complicated way to go about it," adds Terry Hartle, ACE's senior vice president for government and public affairs.

"They can implement something the day after tomorrow if they have to, but it will be like an airplane taking off with all the overhead bins open. Stuff will be flying all over the place," Hartle says. "There are going to be hundreds of questions that have to be addressed through the regulatory process because they weren't touched on in the legislative process and there is no legislative record to rely on. It's the most complicated challenge to implement a new program that I have seen in 25 years. This is going to be a wonderful case study in public administration."

Many Washington education advocates, caught by surprise, are troubled by how the program got into the 774-page deficit reduction bill in the first place as well as what it might mean. Legislative leaders in the Republican-controlled House and Senate, working with Bush administration officials, "made a decision to do this in the dead of the night, with no discussion, no hearings, not even a separate bill being introduced," says Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Even Democratic lawmakers claim they had no time to react to the measure. "We didn't see the full text of it until the morning of the vote. There's a way you do these things and it's not by slipping something into a bill at the last minute," says Tom Kiley, a spokesman for Rep. George Miller (D-California), the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

"What we have to question," says Hunter, "is why they jammed this in at the last minute. Was it to give the administration effective control of the country's high schools? That's what it does and we think it's an awful mistake. It's a troubling federal intervention into the business of local schools."

Intruding on Local Rule?

Michael Carr, associate director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, expresses a different view. "I don't in any way, shape or form believe that the U.S. Department of Education is going to dictate to anyone what their curriculum should be," he says. "The line would be crossed if the Fed came out and said 'OK, here is the national curriculum that everyone has to use,' but I don't foresee that happening."

Under No Child Left Behind, federal authorities allow "a lot of flexibility as to what the standards are and the tests that kids go through to meet those standards. I assume it would be similar" for the new program, Carr adds.

Reacting to concerns about possible federal involvement, House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, wrote to Spellings in February to make clear that "this proposal continues to preserve the role of state and local authorities in making all decisions over school curricula."

They cited existing federal law the General Education Provisions Act, Section 438 which provides that "No provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize any department, agency, officer or employee of the U.S. to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum ... of any school or school system..." "We believe this language prohibits the secretary from establishing any curriculum in any school, public or private," Boehner and Enzi wrote. "The secretary's role is merely to recognize that the state educational agency, local educational agency, or school has established what a rigorous secondary school program of study means for that state, district or school."

Charter concerns

The lawmakers also sought to allay concerns by some that the program may exclude students attending private, charter or home schools. "We again want to be perfectly clear that the intent of this language is to offer competitiveness grants to those students who qualify by completing a rigorous course of study, regardless of the school they attended," Boehner and Enzi declared.

(A week after Congress enacted the legislation containing the new program, House Republicans elected Boehner to be House majority leader, succeeding Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas. Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of California was expected to succeed Boehner as Education Committee chairman.)

In some ways, Carr says, the new competitiveness program is "quite a bit redundant" because other existing programs already do the same thing. He cited the State Scholars Program that encourages states to "push for increased rigor" in their schools. He added that the Pell Grant program also aids "the kinds of students" lawmakers were hoping to produce through the new competitiveness grants.

"So essentially they are taking a significant amount of money and putting it into a program that is redundant of programs already out there that they could support and grow with the same money," Carr says.

Who's Eligible?

The new program will prove to be "a positive policy shift in the long term," says Ross Wiener, director of policy for The Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group.

" They can implement something the day after tomorrow if they have to, but it will be like an airplane taking off with all the overhead bins open. Stuff will be flying all over the place." -Terry Hartle, senior vice president, American Council of Education

"What we used to think of as a college prep curriculum has relevance for people today no matter what their plans are after high school. Kids who go straight into the workforce are going to be better off if they have taken that rigorous academic curriculum," Wiener explains.

" They can implement something the day after tomorrow if they have to, but it will be like an airplane taking off with all the overhead bins open. Stuff will be flying all over the place." -Terry Hartle, senior vice president, American Council of Education

An immediate question, he continues, is "how to make this work fairly and efficiently in the short term." Many current students might need to add courses in high school to be eligible for the new grants and "you would hope there would be a way to make sure that as many students as possible have the opportunity to take advantage of this expanded financial aid," Wiener says.

They should include students in schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind, he adds. The law as written appears to include them if they meet the requirements of the grants, he says.

(A week after Congress enacted the legislation containing the new program, House Republicans elected Boehner to be House majority leader, succeeding Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas. Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of California was expected to succeed Boehner as Education Committee chairman.)

In some ways, Carr says, the new competitiveness program is "quite a bit redundant" because other existing programs already do the same thing. He cited the State Scholars Program that encourages states to "push for increased rigor" in their schools. He added that the Pell Grant program also aids "the kinds of students" lawmakers were hoping to produce through the new competitiveness grants.

"So essentially they are taking a significant amount of money and putting it into a program that is redundant of programs already out there that they could support and grow with the same money," Carr says.

Who's Eligible?

The new program will prove to be "a positive policy shift in the long term," says Ross Wiener, director of policy for The Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group.

"What we used to think of as a college prep curriculum has relevance for people today no matter what their plans are after high school. Kids who go straight into the workforce are going to be better off if they have taken that rigorous academic curriculum," Wiener explains.

" They can implement something the day after tomorrow if they have to, but it will be like an airplane taking off with all the overhead bins open. Stuff will be flying all over the place." -Terry Hartle, senior vice president, American Council of Education

An immediate question, he continues, is "how to make this work fairly and efficiently in the short term." Many current students might need to add courses in high school to be eligible for the new grants and "you would hope there would be a way to make sure that as many students as possible have the opportunity to take advantage of this expanded financial aid," Wiener says.

They should include students in schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind, he adds. The law as written appears to include them if they meet the requirements of the grants, he says.

Getting tough

A number of states already are toughening their curricula through existing or new programs and "the number is going to be climbing dramatically in the next year," says John Kraman, senior policy analyst with Achieve, Inc., a bipartisan nonprofit organization that helps states raise academic standards. In conjunction with the National Governors Association, it hosted a National Education Summit on High Schools in Washington last winter.

As the Department of Education tries to figure out how to make the new competitiveness grant program work in practice, education organizations in Washington are preparing to provide their own input. "We have a responsibility to raise the questions and force the issue at every turn," says Hunter. "Our only hope now is to raise the questions when the regs come up and then to see if sometime in the next year or two we can get a repeal."

"We have indicated to department staff that we stand ready to work with them to implement this program as quickly and efficiently as possible," says Ward. "However, for all the reasons stated above, we think the task ahead is formidable."

Alan Dessoff is a contributing editor.

Texas Tested?

Although there is no direct link with President George W. Bush, the new Academic Competitiveness Grant program appears to have roots in Texas, where Bush was governor for six years before being elected president in 2000.

In 1993, a year before Bush was elected governor for the first time, the Texas state Board of Education established a Recommended High School Program that spelled out a rigorous course of study including math and science. The board acted with involvement and support from the Texas Business and Education Coalition, an organization of state business and education leaders that had been founded four years earlier and in 1992 adopted a Texas Scholars program as its primary community outreach activity.

The rigorous course of study the state Board of Education approved was based on the coalition's requirement for Texas Scholar recognition. Today, Texas Scholars programs have been implemented in more than 350 school districts and communities representing more than 60 percent of the state's students. Since 1999, the Texas Scholars initiative has increased the percentage of students who completed the recommended high school program from 15 percent to more than 64 percent.

Beginning in 2004, by an act of the Texas Legislature, all ninth-grade students in Texas were automatically enrolled in the Recommended High School Program unless their parents chose a different curriculum for them.

The Texas program gained national attention in 2002 when then-U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige spearheaded the creation of the Center for State Scholars. At the National Governors Association conference in February 2005, the scholars' initiative was featured as one of the 10 most promising ideas for high school improvement.


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