MOUNT VERNON, Va. – States that prove they are committed to President Bush's education reform law will find federal officials more flexible in how they enforce it, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings (search) told educators as she promised a sensible approach to its regulations.
"States that understand this new way of doing things will be gratified," Spellings assured state school chiefs and other education leaders invited to meet Thursday at George Washington's Potomac River estate. The state officials celebrated Bush's new education law there three years ago.
"It makes sense, plain and simple," Spellings said. "Others looking for loopholes to simply take the federal funds, ignore the intent of the law and have minimal results to show for their millions of dollars in federal funds will think otherwise and be disappointed."
For example, states that cooperate with the administration — mainly by raising student test scores (search) — will be allowed to hold many more children with disabilities to different academic standards.
Spellings will favor states that don't challenge principal points of the law — yearly testing of students in reading and math in grades three to eight, and public reporting of scores for all major groups of students. She wants proof that states are raising achievement.
And she's inclined to work with states that do even more than the law requires, including the yearly high school testing that Bush wants in federal law but Congress hasn't endorsed.
Overall, Spellings is out to garner support from state leaders who have grown restless over Bush's education law, yet do it without eroding high expectations for all children.
State leaders contend the law sets unreasonable and rigid standards for many children. Connecticut plans to file a federal suit over the law, Utah is poised to pass a bill giving priority to its own education goals, and other states are clamoring for change.
Spellings has shown she's heard those concerns, said David Driscoll, education commissioner in Massachusetts and president of the Council of Chief State School Officers.
"The chiefs are very pleased," Driscoll said after the speech. "She's not backing off the standards, but she's willing to listen and provide flexibility where it makes sense."
The Utah education commissioner, Patti Harrington (search), said she was encouraged by Spellings' respect for local school control and support of alternate testing for more disabled students.
Harrington said Utah lawmakers are still likely to pass a bill giving priority to their own school goals unless federal officials approve Utah's new request for more flexibility.
The relationship between the state and federal leaders is important because it affects everything from teaching to testing, influencing the daily education of millions of students.
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, whose state plans to sue on grounds the federal law is vastly underfunded, said Spellings' announcement does not fix that concern.
On Capitol Hill, the top Republican and Democrat on the House education committee said Spellings' approach could help quell controversy about the law. But in a joint statement, Republican John Boehner of Ohio and Democrat George Miller of California cautioned that the law should be enforced "without favoritism."
Another author of the law, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., praised Spellings' intentions but said her agency should set clear rules — not reward some states and punish others.