When it comes to education, Montana is stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Faced with potentially losing federal funding after publicly challenging No Child Left Behind's student performance mandates, Montana's education chief Denise Juneau is now in discussions with the Department of Education in search of compromise, she told The Huffington Post Friday.
The conflict began after Juneau, Montana's State Superintendent for Public Instruction, decided she'd had enough of federal policies and incentives that require extensive data collection and reporting, which she said had paralyzed her small office.
In April, she wrote U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan saying she would freeze the state's targets for proficiency -- a move flouting the requirements of No Child Left Behind, the landmark federal education legislation that sets performance benchmarks for public schools across the country.
"We're a small, state education agency," said Juneau, who oversees a student population one 10th the size of New York City's.
The coupling of the information and paperwork associated with NCLB and new education initiatives from the Obama administration, she said, gave her small office a "double duty" for reporting. It stressed the state's system. "We have some very small schools in our state where it's difficult to follow the law and collect all the data," she said. "At some point, there needs to be a halt."
Her defiance of NCLB's requirement to keep increasing score targets played out against a political back-and-forth in DC. Obama set the summer as a deadline for a congressional overhaul of NCLB. When Duncan saw congress stalling, he decided to come up with his own workaround, what he called "Plan B": allow states to request waivers excusing them from certain NCLB requirements in exchange for implementing some of Duncan's favored reforms. But, as Rep. John Kline (R-Minn) said more than once, Duncan has released few details on the plan since its initial announcement, leaving states waiting for answers.
"Freezing the targets seemed like an easy place to say: We're still going to be accountable; we still have a pretty high bar; we're still going to follow all the components; but at this point we'll just hold steady while Congress figures out how they're going to reauthorize," Juneau said. "While that political game plays out at our nation's capitol, we thought we would stick to where we are right now to catch our breath."
Duncan wrote Juneau back at the beginning of July, saying that until new NCLB policies are in place, "Montana does need to comply with existing federal requirements." That initial letter left Duncan's enforcement options unclear. A few days later, the Department of Education told her that Montana could lose its Title I federal education funding if it fails to show proof of compliance by August 15.
According to Juneau, the funding Montana would lose amounts to under $500,000. In her office, that would mean losing three or four state education agency workers and a few of the teams sent out to help schools that don't reach their annual NCLB-mandated performance goals.
But between the time she sent the letter and heard back from the U.S. Department of Education, Montana had already went ahead with data collection under the current performance targets.
"The timing puts us in a tough position," she said. "We've already gone through the entire process. Waiting seven weeks to hear back didn't help us. We could have negotiated a compromise earlier, but it caught us at the point of no return."
Juneau's now talking to education department officials to find a solution -- despite her initial resistanceto do so -- but doesn't know where it will lead.
And Juneau's not waiting on the waiver option, since, she said, most of the reform requirements she expects Duncan to attach to waivers would be unfeasible in Montana.
"We have a large population. Our schools are very tiny. The additional burden of collecting even more data would be tough," she said.
And in previous incentive programs such as Race to the Top, Duncan has favored states with charter schools, but Montana has none.
"If they tie waivers with charters, we're out," she said. "We have a really strong constitutional obligation to local control and not many state takeovers. It's probably against the law. We don't tie teacher evaluations to test scores."
"The priorities of the administration often don't fit rural America, including both small states and frontier states like Montana," Juneau said. "They seem to be designing initiatives for urban areas"