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Third Annual ACCESS Conference Focuses on Achieving Education Reform in Difficult Times

On February 27-28, 2003, ACCESS held its third annual conference on education adequacy in Alexandria, Virginia. The conference, Education Adequacy: Strategies for Achieving Reform in Difficult Times, was co-sponsored by the National School Boards Association and attended by almost 100 attorneys, policy people, advocates, and others from 27 states and the District of Columbia. The two-day meeting concentrated primarily on overcoming the special difficulties posed by fighting for costly education reforms at a time when almost every state in the Union has a severe budget shortfall.

Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut energized the attendees with his passionate keynote address on inequality in educational resources and his insights on the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB; for summary and analysis of No Child Left Behind, see the ACCESS NCLB pages). Senator Dodd, a longtime advocate of education in the Senate, described the plight of a struggling urban Connecticut school located a mere 15 minutes from an affluent suburban school in his home state. He noted that while NCLB holds students and schools accountable for low test scores, it does not guarantee that the state and federal governments will fund programs to improve the quality of education in poor districts. People are often surprised, he said, that education funding comprises only 2% of the federal budget because it seems to get about 95% of the rhetoric. The Senator touted the Student Bill of Rights that he and Representative Chakah Fattah (Philadelphia) introduced in the last Congress as an initial approach for remedying these funding and accountability problems.

Michael A. Rebell, Executive Director and Counsel of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, opened the conference by noting that despite a difficult economic climate, plaintiffs continue to prevail in education adequacy cases. In fact, of the cases decided by state highest courts since September 11, 2001, plaintiffs have won 5 out of 6 or 84%, indicating that nationally the commitment to equity in education remains strong. On the second day of the conference, Mr. Rebell presented CFE's model for public engagement as a tool for school reform. The model, which received comment from Wendy Puriefoy of the Public Education Network, Beth Olanoff of Good Schools Pennsylvania, and Abdi Soltani of Californians for Justice, emphasizes public engagement as a theory of change.

Other conference highlights included a panel on the needs of at-risk students featuring Professors Gary Natriello and Jeffrey Henig of Columbia University, an address on studies supporting the efficacy of early-childhood education by Professor Steve Barnett of Rutgers University, and a talk by Doug Gould on communications strategies to promote school funding reform. Additional sessions at the two-day conference were "New Cases and New Court Decisions" and "Litigation Strategies." While the latter two panels were designed specifically for lawyers, all participants also appreciated the general "Roundup from the States" session, in which knowledgeable attendees briefly discussed current school-funding litigation issues in 20 states. The updates clearly demonstrate a growing trend around the country to utilize costing-out studies in connection with adequacy litigations.

Prepared March 3, 2003