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Education Commissioner Decries Micromanagement of Feds, Vows to Push Back

After back-to-back Internet blog posts critical of decisions by federal administrators, Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday is going to take his frustration to Washington, D.C., for a face-to-face discussion with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Speaking Wednesday in Bowling Green to the superintendents of the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative, Holliday said he and Duncan will meet Sept. 12 to discuss concerns he and other states’ top school leaders have with the U.S. Department of Education’s (USED) process to grant – (or deny, as in the case of Kentucky’s recent request to delay including new science standards into testing) – what are called “conditional waivers” from mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The last year we have found micromanagement at its greatest level by the federal department, as evidenced by our issues with the science standards, as evidenced by issues with our teacher evaluation system – they didn’t like one matrix in our decision process,” said Holliday, who also is the president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, the organization of heads of state K-12 education systems.

“I just went sort of crazy and said, ‘Enough is enough,’ and started pushing back,” he said, referring to his blog post criticism of the USED waiver process, comments that have received attention in several print and online news and information outlets.

“As you know, Secretary Duncan and I’ve had a little back and forth about the science assessments. He admitted to me last week that they had made a bad call, but it’s too late to get it corrected this year,” Holliday said.

The Kentucky Department of Education last week released a plan for incorporating minimal science related testing next spring, with full incorporation of the Next Generation Science Standards in the spring 2016 assessments.

In an interview following his comments to the GRREC board, Holliday said Duncan agreed his agency had been “too rigid” in denying Kentucky’s request to hold off on testing the science standards here immediately, “especially since they gave PARRC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) and Smarter Balanced (Assessment Consortium – two groups of states that pooled resources to prepare common core related test questions) a similar waiver for spring 2014 testing.”

The commissioner said many of his peers are just as fed up with USED “micromanagement” as he is.

“The process takes too long, has too much paperwork. It’s a conditional process and should be a state-led process, as with No Child Left Behind,” Holliday said. “As chiefs, if we don’t get some relief on the process of waivers and moving toward a state-led process, I’ve got a feeling that a lot of states just won’t go through the waiver process anymore.”

Speaking to the GRREC superintendents, Holliday called the recent USED approach on the NCLB waivers “like the tail wagging the dog.

“The Kentucky General Assembly is in charge of education of Kentucky, not Washington, D.C.,” he said. “The intent of No Child Left Behind (was for) states or districts through their states to submit waivers that will improve teaching and learning. We shouldn’t have this thing called conditional waivers. If we think we can improve teaching and learning in Kentucky, if the General assembly has a great idea in legislation, we ought to be able to implement that without federal overreach.

“Federal overreach in requiring states to adopt the college and career standards has created the backlash against the common core. It’s a very hot topic nationally. Opinion polls show the public is very concerned about federal overreach into state education matters,” the commissioner said.

Other issues

Holliday also told the GRREC Board of Directors that the KDE task force to address inequities with dual credit course opportunities around the state will begin its work today, and plans to report to the legislature’s House and Senate education committees by December.

“We have great examples of district and university partnerships on dual credit (but) we’ve also got concerns about equity, access and costs,” he said. “We’re seeing some community colleges not offering dual credit. We’ve seen a decline in enrollment in career tech courses (because) the $50 administrative fee has had the wrong impact as far as we’re concerned.”

The commissioner also urged participation in the Kentucky Core Academic Standards Challenge, the current online process allowing educators, parents and others to learn about and offer support for or suggestions to improve the state’s English/language arts and math standards – the first of the state core standards to be implemented five years ago.

Asked what he felt was the greatest threat to continued use of common core standards, Holliday said he was worried that “politics will overcome the practitioners.

“Our teachers have worked awfully hard (learning and using the new standards). You guys made a lot of changes when you had no money,” he said. “I hope we don’t have to start all over. It would take $35 million to start all over, and I don’t know where you get that.

“Let’s work to get them better, because you note I said ‘You’ would have to start all over, because I’ll be damned if I’m going to do it again,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.

Brad Hughes is director of member support for the Kentucky School Boards Association and writes for the association’s eNews service. This originally appeared at RCN partner KY Forward's site.

Photo: Terry Holliday