Bennet Urges Flexibility, Regulatory Relief for Colorado's Rural Schools

Denver, CO – Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) and a former schools superintendent, today urged the Department of Education to provide additional flexibility to rural schools to meet their unique challenges and needs while cutting red tape.

In a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Bennet pressed for any No Child Left Behind (NCLB) flexibility package to include additional flexibility to meet the specific needs of rural schools and districts. Bennet is committed to reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), and he fully supports the HELP Committee’s work to fix NCLB. However, he recognizes the need for temporary regulatory relief while negotiations on ESEA continue.

“I hear from parents and educators across Colorado about the unique challenges facing our rural areas,” Bennet wrote in the letter. “Many rural districts struggle to attract and retain teachers and principals, and parents are often faced with limited school choice. Rural districts should be held to the same high standards, but need to identify tailored solutions that work in their unique context.”

Bennet reiterated his support for a comprehensive bill to fix No Child Left Behind and increase flexibility, but, in the meantime, he pushed the department to increase flexibility for states that are committed to high standards and reform, such as Colorado.

“The package should be a tool for states like Colorado that are committed to setting a high bar for their students and teachers to gain additional flexibility to meet ambitious goals,” Bennet wrote in the letter. “As a former Superintendent, I have been on the receiving end of No Child Left Behind, and I strongly encourage you to provide relief from onerous elements of the law that cripple the efforts of our teachers to make the best decisions for students. Our districts are asking for Washington to release its stranglehold on making decisions about how to do things, and instead have high expectations and assist states and districts in meeting those expectations.”

Rural schools face unique challenges and are often able to provide unique benefits to their students.  They face numerous challenges including small enrollments, federal and state education funding inequities, geographic isolation, challenges in recruiting and retaining effective teachers and leaders, and limited access to advanced courses.

According to the Digest of Education Statistics reported annually by the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students attending rural schools increased by over 11 percent, from 10.5 million to nearly 11.7 million between the 2004-2005 and 2008-2009 school years.  The share of the nation’s public school enrollment attending rural schools increased from 17.9 percent to 21.6 percent.

In May, Bennet joined a push to elevate the voice of rural schools in Colorado and across the country to ensure their unique needs and challenges are addressed.

Click here for Bennet’s statement on the U.S. Department of Education’s decision to accept applications for waivers to exempt states from particularly problematic regulations in No Child Left Behind.

Bennet is part of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s negotiating team crafting reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

Full text of the letter is included below.

Dear Secretary Duncan,

Another school year is beginning under an outdated No Child Left Behind regime. 

I am committed to continuing to work in Congress to update and fix the law to address the critical issues facing our schools and classrooms.  Senate HELP Committee Chairman Harkin and Ranking Member Enzi are working hard to produce a bipartisan bill to improve our system of public schools through reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), and they have my full support in that effort.

In the meantime, states and districts across the country are looking for relief and flexibility right now. Your recent announcement that you will use your authority to provide relief to states from the burdens of No Child Left Behind in exchange for reform is an opportunity to cut red tape and remove bureaucratic barriers to innovation and reform that are taking away from the quality of kids’ education. Many elements of No Child Left Behind are not serving their intended purpose, and I support this effort to give states the flexibility they need to improve them.

As we have previously discussed, rural areas have a pressing need for additional flexibility.  I hear from parents and educators across Colorado about the unique challenges facing our rural areas.  Many rural districts struggle to attract and retain teachers and principals, and parents are often faced with limited school choice.  Rural districts should be held to the same high standards, but need to identify tailored solutions that work in their unique context.  I strongly urge you to include additional flexibility to meet the specific needs of rural schools and districts in any ESEA flexibility package.

As you move forward with this ESEA flexibility package, I encourage you to ensure that we are setting a high bar for states to prepare students for success in college and careers, and that we are maintaining accountability for closing the achievement gap and turning around our lowest-performing schools, while also rewarding schools that are making great progress. We must also continue working to strengthen and support our teachers and school leaders.  The package should be a tool for states like Colorado that are committed to setting a high bar for their students and teachers to gain additional flexibility to meet ambitious goals.

As a former Superintendent, I have been on the receiving end of No Child Left Behind, and I strongly encourage you to provide relief from onerous elements of the law that cripple the efforts of our teachers to make the best decisions for students.  I know you experienced similar challenges during your tenure in Chicago.  Our districts are asking for Washington to release its stranglehold on making decisions about how to do things, and instead have high expectations and assist states and districts in meeting those expectations.

Right now, children living in poverty face approximately a 9 in 100 chance of graduating from a four-year college – a clear sign that our system of public schools is failing too many students. These children and their parents aren’t concerned with where a fix comes from; they just want the problem solved.

As you know, this flexibility package is not a replacement for a new law.  I am committed to continuing to work in a bipartisan fashion to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to ensure we are putting our students on a path to success and our economy on a long-term road to prosperity.