Under pressure from hurricane-stressed states, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced yesterday that the agency will for one year relax academic accountability standards under the administration's signature education initiative, allowing schools affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita to recoup without facing penalties for poor annual assessments.
The decision marks a significant shift for Spellings, who has said since she assumed office that while she will be flexible in enforcing the No Child Left Behind law, one area of measure is sacrosanct: holding schools accountable for the results of yearly tests. Yesterday's action marks the first time the administration has yielded any ground on this point.
"It's important to note that is not Waiver City," department spokeswoman Susan Aspey said. "No one has gotten a waiver yet, and these schools will have to show that they did not meet the state standards because of this disaster and these displaced students."
Spellings told a House committee that schools in the five "major disaster" states will be eligible to delay obligations under the education act without requesting a waiver under a provision that allows for the impact of a natural disasters. Schools that were greatly damaged or closed would be eligible for this option.
Other schools in these and other states accommodating the estimated 370,000 displaced students would still be required to test those pupils. But they would be permitted to lump their test scores into a separate subcategory. If a school determines that these students' scores will cause it to fall short of the law's requirement that the school is making "adequate yearly progress," it may then ask for a waiver to not count the scores.
"We must not penalize any school of any kind for its commitment to these students," Spelling told legislators.
Since the unforgiving storms damaged or destroyed schools in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, Spellings steadfastly resisted lifting the basic requirements of the program. The National Education Association, the largest teachers union, asked Spellings to waive the accountability requirement of the law. Spellings denied requests in letters to states to waive the student progress requirement, saying it was the linchpin of the federal law.
Integrating the displaced students has created costly and emotionally wrenching problems for states, leading education experts and officials says. Provisions No Child Left Behind and the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which governs how schools serve homeless children, were not designed with a disaster such as Katrina in mind, they say, and should be adjusted accordingly. For example, No Child Left Behind did not envision a situation in which unprecedented numbers of students moved between states, from private to public schools, and between areas with different academic and teaching standards.
"The initial response from the Department of Education is we may relax rules on a case-by-case basis, and for school districts that just got wiped out that sounds pretty silly," said Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.
Calling for relief from federal regulations, Superintendent Rodney Lafon of St. Charles Parish in Louisiana, 30 miles west of New Orleans, told a Senate subcommittee last week that it "would not be fair" to hold schools "accountable for many of these requirements during this most unusual year."
Many displaced children who showed up in other states had no records, and officials said they had no idea whether computerized records were available.
"Where is our baseline data?" asked Carlene Anderson, superintendent of schools in Walton County, Fla., as she explained why it would be difficult to gauge the performance of the 550 displaced students enrolled in her district.
But until yesterday, the administration did not seem inclined to change policies to accommodate their concerns.
Advocates for schools are also clashing with homeless advocates over whether Washington should grant waivers to the 1987 McKinney-Vento law.
Spellings has indicated more willingness to seek waivers of McKinney-Vento, but that stance is drawing ire from advocates of the homeless. The law prevents schools from segregating the homeless, and allows officials to move students to new schools only with the consent of parents and if administrators can show it is in the best interest of the child.
Schools in Houston -- which had swiftly moved to place children in shelters in the school system -- were now expected to transport children to those schools even after their families have found homes miles away, said Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.
"If they were living in the Astrodome and were initially enrolled in a school three miles from the Astrodome and then they moved to an apartment that is 10 miles from the school, under McKinney-Vento they are required to provide them busing 10 miles -- even if they are passing four other elementary schools on the way," she said.
School officials wanted the authority "to provide these children transportation to the nearest school or at some point not to be required to provide transportation services," she said.
But Barbara Duffield, policy director at the nonprofit National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, said that such waivers would be discriminatory and have unintended consequences. She called for better funding of schools to meet their legal obligations.
"The rights that children have shouldn't vary from place to place based on a process that is very likely to be political," she said. "This is a civil rights law in spirit, and civil rights are not the kind of thing that should be subject to a waiver."
Spellings also tried yesterday to clarify a proposal to offer states and schools $7,500 per displaced student. Under the proposal, which must approved by Congress, any school hosting displaced students could receive money to defray costs. Families with children in private schools will have to apply for the money. "We must not penalize parents who had already chosen private school for their children," Spellings said in her testimony.