By Amanda Costikyan Jones
WASHINGTON – Kent County Public Schools Superintendent Lorraine A. Costella told a congressional subcommittee Thursday that the “Ed-Flex” program has helped her schools boost student achievement while building a greater sense of community.
“Although the school system may need more resources, flexibility in using the existing resources will help us hit (our) targets,” Costella said. “We’ve really seen some spectacular results.”
Ed-Flex is a three-year-old pilot program that lets schools in 12 participating states cut some of the strings that are attached to federal education dollars. Bills now in the House and Senate would expand the program, allowing all 50 states to apply.
The expansion of Ed-Flex has bipartisan support in Congress, as well as a ringing endorsement from the National Governors’ Association.
But some lawmakers worry that Ed-Flex does not do enough to make sure that schools that get waivers are actually boosting student achievement.
“We don’t believe in issuing blank checks,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., in a prepared statement. “We’re concerned about the lack of accountability in the bill as it is now written, so we will be offering a number of amendments.”
Ed-Flex is most often used by schools to redirect Title I funds, which may currently be restricted to programs specifically for disadvantaged students. Under Ed-Flex, a school can be granted a waiver allowing it to use Title I for broader-based programs.
Costella said Kent County school officials have used Ed-Flex waivers to target the students they think need the most help. She said the results have been excellent.
Costella asked for and got Title I waivers for four of the eight schools in her district. She said Garnett Elementary used its waiver for “an extended-day program that even included kindergartners.
“Their results on state assessments show that their African-American students are quickly approaching the achievement level of the Caucasian students,” she said. “In fact, their third-grade African-American males met the standard and achieved a higher level (than other groups) in math on those state assessments.”
Traditional Title I “pull-out” programs remove small groups of students from regular classes or activities for extra help. But they have been criticized for causing students to miss class time and for sometimes employing less-qualified assistants to teach the special groups.
“We know pull-out programs don’t work,” Costella said.
She said such programs can also be divisive.
“Kids know … when they’re being pulled out and when they’re part of a special group,” she said. Schoolwide programs are “better for them socially and emotionally, and it’s also better for the school in terms of community and parent involvement.”
Because Maryland is an Ed-Flex state, waivers have been “very much more accessible,” said Costella. Ed-Flex allows local school officials to go to the state Education Department instead of the federal department for waivers.
Costella recognized the concerns over accountability if Ed- Flex is expanded.
“We need to have the flexibility, we need to have the resources, but you have to hold our feet to the fire,” she said.
She was the only local school official to testify before the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth and Families. The other witnesses were an official from the U.S. General Accounting Office and state education officials from Texas, Ohio and North Carolina.