New education group starts by putting focus on No Child Left Behind's effects on Ky.

06/28/2011 07:36 AM

SHELBYVILLE — A new group with the goal of bolstering education in Kentucky used its first meeting to emphasize how changes in the federal No Child Left Behind law might affect Kentucky.

The group, calling itself “Kentucky Leads the Nation,” is made up of 10 state Senators, including Republican Senate President David Williams, 10 state representatives, school district superintendents, teacher union representatives and education think tanks, with an early goal of discussing and setting Kentucky’s education priorities.

The group had its first meeting at Martha Layne Collins High School in Shelby County on Monday. It aims to be non-partisan with its discussions and priorities, and acknowledges its member might not agree on issues.

But the group intends to highlight education problems and push for solutions. It plans an education summit in Louisville in late August.

In the meantime, Kentucky’s leaders are working with the federal government on a couple of fronts, including seeking an exemption to standards in the No Child Left Behind law.

Last week, Gov. Steve Beshear and Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday sent a letter to the U.S. Dept. of Education asking to use Kentucky’s yet-to-be implemented testing standards instead of the federal benchmarks.

So federal money that’s currently divvied up based on how schools perform relative to the federal benchmarks would instead be distributed based on students’ performance on the new statewide tests.

Beshear’s request came after U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote an opinion piece in Politico, encouraging states to apply for waivers because talks in Congress over updating and re-authorizing No Child Left Behind have apparently stalled.

Previously, Holliday told Pure Politics that he wasn’t worried about being denied a waiver, despite Kentucky’s standards still being developed and approved.

At Monday’s meeting, Tracy Herman, a legislative liaison for the Kentucky Department of Education, underscored that confidence. She said Kentucky’s new standards should be stronger than the current federal standards.

Williams, who previously called Beshear’s request a “farce” because it was unclear what the waiver would include, said he remains skeptical about the waiver request and re-authorization of the federal education law.

Williams has worked on and voted for education reforms since the early 1990s in the state Senate. He said Kentucky has always tried to opt out of NCLB standards since the federal law was passed, because the state has believed its testing standards and benchmarks were better and more fair.

Williams, the Republican gubernatorial nominee who is running against Beshear in the fall, said educators should be focusing on developing the state standards instead of worrying about No Child Left Behind.

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, also joined the discussions because he was involved in talks between 2007 and 2008 — the 110th Congress — to extend No Child Left Behind. But those talks broke down.

Yarmuth said that many groups, including teachers, held out on re-authorization hoping President Barack Obama would bring them a better deal than what President George W. Bush was willing to give at the time.

Yarmuth called that decision a mistake.

Now, with Republicans in charge of the U.S. House of Representatives and with many of those new Republicans more conservative, Yarmuth said the divide between groups on federal education reforms is deeper.

Instead of discussing where money should be spent, the debate is between members of Congress who believe the federal Department of Education should be abolished and those who don’t share those views, Yarmuth said.

Yarmuth added that Congress could deal with No Child Left Behind issues on a piecemeal basis instead of one big bill sometime this year — but only if bigger debates on issues such as raising the debt ceiling were resolved.

But he cautioned the group not to be optimistic on re-authorization.

—Reporting and video production by Kenny Colston

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