Two days after President Bush signed new education reforms into law on Jan. 8, US Education Secretary Rod Paige held a meeting near Washington with 30 state school chiefs to build relations with them and talk about how the law should be implemented.
"We want to be partners with the states and territories. Our success is dependent upon one another," Paige said. He also said he wants the Education Department to quickly respond to state concerns.
The state school chiefs said they thought they were coming to Washington to hear about changes they would have to make to comply with the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). But Paige set a different tone telling states that his staff is here to serve them.
"I thought this meeting was going to be about rules and regulations but instead it has been about values, principles and commitment, which was what I needed to hear," said Ted Stilwill, Iowa's Director of Public Education. He added that no state has all the answers to school problems but" together we can figure that out."
Texas Superintendent Jim Nelson agreed,"For every problem we experience in our state, someone in this room has had that problem and has the key."
The school leaders left the D.C. area feeling encouraged and confident the issues they raised in private sessions would be considered.
"The mere fact that he (Paige) asked us here as quickly as he did is a positive sign. I am confident that Paige will involve us in the rule making process," said Gene Wilhoit Kentucky's School Superintendent.
A number of state legislators, governors and superintendents have been concerned about a requirement to test every student in grades 3-8 in reading and math. For Kentucky, this has been an issue because they feel the 3-8 testing interferes with decade old reforms and have described it as a "step backwards."
Wilhoit says he wouldn't mind blending his system in a way that meets federal rules, but still respects what the state has done and he was encouraged by the Department's response to his concerns.
"They said they don't want all states to look alike. So we think we can work through these issues," Wilhoit tells Stateline.org.
Working through the issues will happen during the rule-making process. Since the bill is now law, it is up to Paige and the Department of Education to write rules and regulations to implement the law - the fine print.
In February, the Department of Education plans to bring together 24 teachers, parents, principals, officials and education leaders to negotiate how the law will be implemented. They anticipate that all the rules will be in place by June.
"The details matter the most if we are going to implement this legislation. "I'm encouraged by your willingness to meet and negotiate those details," " said North Carolina's Mike Ward told Paige.
But, at least one schools chief warned Paige not to be lulled into a false sense of security. "We are always going to scream about federal intrusion -that is the American way, especially in the Heartland," said Kansas' Andy Tompkins. Kansas is one state that has to change significantly to meet new federal demands.