Senators meet with Billings educators to talk reform

Billings Gazette

by Rob Rogers

Educators from Billings School District 2 sat down with U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., on Saturday to discuss the state of education in Montana and the West.

While the hourlong discussion ranged from how to make changes to No Child Left Behind to the importance of post-secondary education, most in the room were just happy to have the ears of a pair of federal lawmakers.

“I think it’s great that there’s two senators in town talking about education,” said Scott McCullough, a high school history teacher in the district.

Tester invited Bennet to town because Bennet serves on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. As the federal No Child Left Behind law goes up for reauthorization this year, Bennet’s committee will have a hand in reshaping it.

Tester is a former teacher and school board trustee in the Big Sandy School District.

Bennet spoke at length, arguing that lawmakers in Washington, D.C., were ill-equipped to design education reform and that while accountability is a must, districts need much more flexibility in how they’re allowed to reach their goals. The government needs to be “tight on accountability and much looser on telling people how to get there,” he said.

No Child Left Behind was created in 2002, a Bush administration initiative that requires schools to ensure that every child regardless of background, race or disability tests at grade level in reading and math by 2014.

Each year, schools are required to reach certain benchmarks, known as Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP.

Schools that fail to reach those goals face sanctions. They start small, like letters that go home to parents informing them their school failed to make AYP and their child has the option to go to another school in the district. Failing schools can see their staff fired or their principals removed. Schools that show no improvement year after year can be shut down altogether.

Many teachers at Saturday’s meeting liked the idea of keeping accountability while moving away from AYP requirements. Too much time already is spent on standardized tests, they said.

“I think you see some recognition that that just isn’t a good model,” said high school technology teacher Vince Long.

The senators also were asked for their opinions of collective bargaining rights, referring to the move Wisconsin legislators made last spring to bar public unions from negotiating on salaries and benefits.

Both senators responded that teachers unions aren’t bankrupting state coffers. Success at the school level happens when administration and unions collaborate to solve the needs of school districts, said Bennet, a past public schools superintendent from Denver.

Bennet was eager to hear the feedback from educators. Next year is an election year, so it’s likely that changes to No Child Left Behind won’t happen in the 2012 Congress.

“We need to get it done this year,” he said.