GAO Adds Fuel to Education Funding Debate
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
A new report hands both sides fresh ammunition in the debate over whether Congress is giving states enough money to test students, as required under the sweeping Bush administration education program, No Child Left Behind.
For some school boards, teachers' unions and state education experts, the May 8 report from the General Accounting Office validates their claim that Congress should fork over more funds to help states develop, administer and score tests mandated by the 2001 federal law.
But for key congressional Republicans and libertarian groups such as The Cato Institute, GAO's report bolsters their argument that Congress is giving states more than enough money to administer the tests.
No Child Left Behind requires that states test all students in math and reading each year in grades 3 through 8 and at least once during high school, by the 2005-2006 school year. Students must be tested in science at least once in elementary, middle and high school by 2007-08.
GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, estimated that states could spend between $1.9 billion and $5.3 billion on such testing over a six-year period. The cost would depend on the kinds of tests the state decided to use.
Least costly are multiple-choice tests that are machine scored. Most costly would be a combination of multiple choice and open-ended questions, such as essays, that must be hand-scored.
"Up to this point, Congress didn't have a definitive word on [the costs] and now they do," said David Griffith, director of governmental and public affairs for the National Association of State Boards of Education, (NASBE), a trade group. NASBE came under fire when it estimated two years ago that states would spend between $2.7 billion and $7 billion to implement the testing requirements. "We feel pretty vindicated," Griffith said. "It affirms our estimates."
Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington, D.C., education think tank, told Stateline.org he thought the GAO's estimates were accurate and that states will probably end up spending somewhere in the middle of GAO's cost range -- $3.9 billion. "The president and the Hill are deluding themselves if they don't think that [No Child Left Behind] doesn't impose immense costs on states and school districts," Jennings said. "This [report] will be an additional prod to have Congress provide more money to carry out this law."
Some are concerned the report will encourage states to opt for multiple-choice tests simply to save money. "The only way there is enough money there is if states use bare-bones, multiple-choice, bubble tests," said David Shreve, education expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Shreve said the report's finding also might put pressure on the states to "dumb down" their tests to save money.
Congress is providing enough money for the states to put in basic, minimum tests, but not the funds needed to help students achieve at high levels, said Michael Pons, policy analyst with the National Education Association, the largest U.S. teachers' union.
The No Child Left Behind law guarantees $4 billion over six years, said Jim Manley, spokesman for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. "This study raises the question whether that is going to be sufficient to develop, administer and score the highest quality of test in each state," he said.
For key Republicans on the Hill, the answer is yes. "This new report confirms that states are being provided with the resources they need to adequately and accurately assess student progress and make sure no child is left behind," Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH), the HELP committee chairman.
David Salisbury, director of Cato's Center for Educational Freedom, predicted GAO's conclusions would justify keeping education funds at current levels. "This report makes the states look hard-pressed to claim that they can't do this with the money they are getting," Salisbury said.
In some states, such as New Hampshire, Utah and Hawaii, state lawmakers are balking at the cost of the education law.
GAO's cost estimate, required by the No Child Left Behind law, spans six years and is not broken down by year. Nor does it include the cost of providing alternative tests for students who have learning disabilities or don't speak English well. For this fiscal year, Congress set aside nearly $385 million for testing.
The U.S. Department of Education declined to comment on the overall GAO findings and instead pointed to departmental comments within the report itself. There, the department said it had concerns about GAO's methodology and faulted the agency for not providing a "complete picture" of federal funds available to states.
The GAO report (GAO-03-389) is called "Title I: Characteristics of Tests Will Influence Expenses; Information Sharing May Help States Realize Efficiencies."