State seeks changes to federal education law

Posted: Wednesday, February 26, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) -- State officials may turn to Congress for help if the Bush administration doesn't give them the leeway they seek to make a sweeping federal education initiative work in Alaska.

Eric Madsen, a state Department of Education and Early Development administrator, said several parts of the No Child Left Behind law pose problems in Alaska, but he's not sure the federal government will go along with solutions Alaska has proposed.

State education officials spent more than two hours earlier this month talking to federal education officials in Washington D.C. about the state's concerns. Madsen described the meetings as ''cordial.''

But, he said, ''We received no indication that anything we were saying made any sense to them.''

State Education Department spokesman Harry Gamble said that does not mean the federal government won't go along with Alaska's proposals. ''It's possible we can hear from them momentarily,'' Gamble said.

Madsen outlined key changes the state may seek in the law -- or in interpretation of the law -- in a presentation Tuesday to the House Special Committee on Education.

One area of concern for Alaska officials deals with Alaska Native language immersion programs. Federal law requires them to take tests in English, but the state wants to let students in Native language programs take their required tests in the immersion language at the lower grades.

The state proposes to require kids to be tested in English by eighth grade.

''This is not an easy fix, by any means,'' Madsen said. The state would need to translate its tests at younger grades into the Native language, because it is not proposing that those students be exempt from testing.

The state may also ask for a change in the federal requirement that teachers have an academic major in each subject they teach.

In schools so small they have three or fewer teachers, the state wants to let staff teach some classes even if they have just an academic minor in the subject, Madsen said. The state would still require those teachers to have a major in the subject they spend most of their time teaching.

The state also would like to see a change in the requirement that teaching aides have at least two years of college. The state wants an exception for schools that want to hire aides with Alaska Native cultural and language expertise, even if they lack college coursework.

The state also wants flexibility in how low-performing schools provide school choice and supplemental services, like tutoring, to students.

For instance, if students want to transfer to another school, the law allows funding to be spent only on transportation, but Madsen said in Alaska it might make sense to also provide a stipend for a host family in another community.

State education officials have been talking to U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, about problems with the law, Gamble said.

A spokesman for Stevens could not comment on the possibility of changing the law. She said Stevens' staff specialist examining the education law was not available Tuesday afternoon.

The state submitted its plan for implementing the law at the end of January and will be talking with federal officials through March and April in anticipation of final approval of the plan by May 1.

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