GWEN IFILL: Even before the No Child Left Behind education bill was signed into law two years ago, some lawmakers and educators complained that it would be too costly and too difficult to enforce. Today, as part of series of steps to make the law more palatable in schoolrooms around the country, the Department of Education relaxed some of the new standards.
Secretary of Education Rod Paige:
ROD PAIGE: These policies will help address some unique challenges that are faced by teachers in rural districts, some unique challenges are faced by science teachers, and some current teachers who've been teaching for many many years and developed expertise during that period of time.
GWEN IFILL: The new changes will give teachers in rural school districts until 2007, an extra three years, to prove they are qualified in all topics they teach. And science teachers will now be able to prove their qualifications by demonstrating broad mastery of the field, rather than of specific sciences like chemistry or biology.
The law is designed to improve teachers and students, in part by penalizing schools where scores on standardized tests do not improve rapidly enough. The politics of the law have changed. In Congress, Republicans and many Democrats initially signed on.
But the backlash started soon after, and at least ten state legislatures have now sought to roll back all or some of the law. Today's changes targeted complaints raised in rural states like Utah, Montana and Maine, which have attempted to opt out of provisions they find unworkable.
In a NewsHour interview last fall, Maine 's commissioner of education said the law made it more difficult to find qualified teachers.
SUSAN GENDRON: I was in a remote part of the state last week and the superintendent was asking me, he said, "You know, I can't find a certified, qualified foreign language teacher. I have an individual in the community who was raised in another country, knows the language -- it's their native language. Can that person come and teach it as a foreign language?" No Child Left Behind would say absolutely no, and yet if we don't work and support this school system, the children there will go without foreign language.
GWEN IFILL: The Bush administration has already relaxed other areas of the law affecting students with disabilities, and those with limited English language skills.
GWEN IFILL: So is the federal government rolling back its landmark education law, or tinkering at the edges?
For answers, we go to Eugene Hickok, the acting deputy secretary of education, and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, the chairman of the Democratic Governors' Association. Mr. Secretary, how many school systems will be affected by the new changes that went out today?
EUGENE HICKOK: Well, I think it's possible that every school district in the country will have some impact with this. But it's far from rolling back on the requirements. What we're going to do is stepping up. It doesn't take place in a vacuum. And part of the obligation as made clear by Secretary Paige is as we implement this law, we learn about where the challenges of practical implementation run against the letter of the law. In this case what we're trying to do is provide some guidance, and some flexibility in those areas where, as the superintendent from Maine mentioned, it's difficult to attract, maintain, highly qualified teachers.
GWEN IFILL: So is it fair to say that people like the superintendent in Maine and folks like the Utah state legislature and other states that Bush administration officials have been trying to explain this law, that they effected what we saw today?
EUGENE HICKOK: Certainly, in the sense that our job is to listen to the field. We have a law. It's got a very strong purpose. We all agree on the purpose of highly qualified teachers in the classroom. How you make that happen will vary across states, and part of our job is to fine ways to make sure the mandate of the law is accomplished in a practical way that realizes the challenges and potential of every district.
GWEN IFILL: Governor Vilsack, you are the governor of a largely rural state. What do you make of today's new regulations?
GOV. THOMAS VILSACK: Well, I would say that the No Child Left Behind law is basically on its own watch list. It hasn't had the yearly progress that it should have. I think the secretary suggested and indicated that there are flaws and problems with the law. And at least the department is beginning to create some flexibility, but I'm not sure they've gone far enough.
The reality is that school districts have unique circumstances, and I think with the qualified teacher requirement you're still going to have difficulties in places like Los Angeles and urban centers continuing to look for qualified teachers and be able to find qualified teachers there. Right now they're having a hard time finding any teacher to teach in their classrooms, and then you take a state like Alaska that has a completely different set of circumstances. I'm not sure what the flexibility is enough. It certainly to give the secretary his due, it's certainly better than it was, but I think there still need to be greater flexibility.
GWEN IFILL: The flexibility that was granted in this case help you in Iowa?
GOV. THOMAS VILSACK: In our state we're in a little different situation. We're one of the few states that has and maybe the only state that actually has standards for teachers. This was implemented before No Child Left Behind. We are not in a position or concerned in terms of the quality of our teachers.
We're very much focused on professional development in a state set of standards which forces and compels us to get qualified people in the classroom. So it's not going to have as much of an impact on a state like Iowa that already has something in place, but again there are tremendous challenges in highly populated areas like Los Angeles and sparsely populated areas like Alaska.
GWEN IFILL: What do you say to that, Mr. Secretary?
EUGENE HICKOK: I think it's way too soon, with all due respect to the governor, way too soon to be passing judgment on where No Child Left Behind is. As a matter of fact, I think the good news is, one of the reasons we're hearing from the field so much, if you will, anxiety about this law is because we're taking it seriously, unlike previous editions, unlike previous administrations of federal education law. The fact is that we're hearing from states, we're hearing from locals, rural areas, from metropolitan areas. We're hearing a lot of concerns, but the concern basically is how can we make this happen?
GWEN IFILL: Do they have a choice but to take it seriously?
EUGENE HICKOK: As a matter of fact, in previous administrations a lot of states didn't take federal education law seriously. When President Bush came to office, only a handful of states were compliant with the 1994 version of the Elementary Secondary Education Act.
I think it's a real test with the people we've been full partners with that they do take it seriously. But they also recognize there's no alternative – in the sense that if we don't believe in the importance of a highly qualified teacher in the classroom, if we don't believe in the importance of making sure that a child can read on grade level, in this the wealthiest nation on earth. Then, that says volumes about who we are. So the debate continues. It's not really a debate about the larger purposes; it's about how to get there.
GWEN IFILL: Is it a debate, Governor about the larger purposes or is it a debate about the money that should be spent to get there or a debate about the fact that the federal government is the one telling you what you should do?
GOV. THOMAS VILSACK: Well, I think it's certainly a debate about the financing. We can probably have this debate on the show about whether or not this is a fully and adequately funded law. My view is it's not. And many, many governors feel the same way. I think really what's motivated a lot of the flexibilities that have recently been announced is the fact that 22 states have over a third of their schools on a watch list and eight states have over half of their schools.
And I think there's a genuine concern that the law doesn't recognize that there are specific challenges. Not every child learns at the same level, not every child learns at the same rate. This is a very individualized process that education is, and I think a law has to recognize that. And there's also some pushback from the states in terms of the federal government mandating as much as they mandate not adequately funding it and suggesting that there's a strong partnership. In my state we've seen the federal share of education increase from 3.9 percent to 4.4 percent of our total education budget. That's hardly a partnership. That's certainly a contributor, but it's not a partner.
GWEN IFILL: I'll let the secretary respond.
EUGENE HICKOK: With regard to your state you see over a 50 percent increase in federal dollars for education going to Iowa . But the larger issue really isn't a debate over money. I think we'll disagree on that respectfully. I think the larger issue is the degree to which this new law represents where states feel they need to be going. And while there is somewhat of a hew and cry in some state legislatures, that again I think is because they recognize the complexity and the difficulty but the importance of this law.
We would argue, in fact, I'll be in Maine tomorrow to talk to their state chief, we would argue that we need to do now is sit down together as full partners and go to the next level. But to debate the funding I think is to put together a false premise.
GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about some of the flexibility which you have given it -- there have been changes or relaxations of guidelines affecting same sex education so far, limited English students, that is people who are, school systems which have a high percentage of people who don't speak English as their first language, special education students, students with disabilities, and now this -- a lot of rural teachers who have to teach multiple subjects. Where do you go next, if you keep shaving away at the edges here, when have you fundamentally changed the law?
EUGENE HICKOK: Well, I guess I would disagree with the premise that it's shaving away at the edges. What I think it is doing is recognizing we have these principles, highly qualified teachers, everyone recognizes the importance of it, how can you best accomplish that given the realities of the world in which teachers exist -- and how that world differ among the states? So rather than have a narrow tunnel vision approach to that policy, our goal is to make sure in the end we achieve that policy, although it might be done differently than originally envisioned by the law.
What happens next, we continue the conversation. That's our whole purpose here is to spend time at the state and local level learning about where the challenges are. We had a team of teachers going to every state in this country, among them Iowa, and to learn what kind of challenges are out there, that's what led to the kinds of recommendations that Secretary Paige announced today.
GWEN IFILL: Governor, do you think that this kind of flexible is ultimately a good thing or do you think it's just fixing a flawed vehicle?
GOV. THOMAS VILSACK: I would certainly not want to say that it's not a good thing for the department to be flexible. The question is whether they've gone far enough. When you basically talk about special education students we are still faced with the dilemma of making sure that every special ed student is proficient within ten years -- that a very difficult challenge.
In terms of limited language students, is it really fair to assume that a youngster who has been in this country just a single year is and has learned the language in a single year well prepared to take the test that is the assessment tool by which we determine whether school districts are failing or succeeding?
Is it fair to say that you are listening when state after state indicates to you that you're not adequately funding your own mandate by the virtue of the agreement that was made with Congress to fully and completely fund this bill, and not doing it, are you really listening? So I think there's still a long way to go before we can reach the promise of this bill.
I think the secretary is right that no one disagrees that we want every child to reach his or her potential. The question is whether or not we have in place the proper vehicle. I think there still need to be substantial changes to reflect the unique nature of education in all parts of this country and the unique nature of every single student.
GWEN IFILL: What needs to happen next to perfect this vehicle, in your opinion?
EUGENE HICKOK: We're looking at various issues -- we're looking at participation rate, we're looking at how states identify schools.
GWEN IFILL: What do you mean by participation rate?
EUGENE HICKOK: There's a statutory requirement that you have a 95 percent participation rate of your students or you don't make equity or any progress, that's in the statute; there's not much we can do about that. But there are ways states implement testing procedures that we can get to that issue.
I think, frankly, that where we are right now is exactly where we thought we'd be two years ago. If we did not have a law that placed among the American people a tough challenge, because of the importance of this challenge, I don't think we'd hear the kind of reaction we've heard. I'm not bothered by it. I welcome it. I think we need to continue this conversation. But you know, the American people are spending upwards of $500 billion a year, and yet in some places 60 percent of the kids aren't on grade level. That's our challenge, and the alternative I think is just unacceptable.
GWEN IFILL: Time for a brief response from Governor Vilsack.
GOV. THOMAS VILSACK: There's no question we're spending resources, but we have to spend these resources because our economic opportunity is linked to a great education system. The chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, basically said it all when he said the education system is the key to the future of this country.
It's where innovation and creativity comes from. If we're going to succeed in the goal of this law, we have to adequately fun it and we have to continue to listen more fully and more closely to states. There is absolutely a need for greater flexibility, and I would say that if folks anticipated this two years ago we should have built into the law the flexibility that doesn't exist today.
GWEN IFILL: Governor Vilsack, Secretary Hickok, thank you both very much.