Lawmakers Balk at Cost of Federal Education Law

 

President George W. Bush's sweeping federal education program is creating sticker shock in statehouses across the country at a time when states are grappling with the worst budget shortfalls in decades.

Lawmakers in New Hampshire and Hawaii are considering measures that would let their states walk away from footing the bill for the program Bush pushed through Congress, which is commonly known as No Child Left Behind.

New Hampshire and Hawaii are not alone in worrying about No Child Left Behind's price tag. Iowa, New Jersey, North Dakota, Tennessee and Washington are among states that have resolutions calling for more federal funding to help implement the new testing and learning standards required by the federal education law.

Only New Hampshire is seriously considering legislation that would be legally binding, however. The other states are eyeing non-binding resolutions.

"I suspect states have their eye on the New Hampshire legislation and will see what happens there before acting on their own," said Scott Young, an education policy expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures. NCSL calls the new federal law an unfunded mandate and estimates that Congress and the White House provided $5 billion less than was originally authorized for this fiscal year.

In New Hampshire, state Rep. John Alger (R) said he wants to make sure that neither the state nor school districts have to spend their own money to implement the 2001 law, which requires more student testing and allows parents to pull their children out of low-performing schools.

Rep. Alger's bill, House Bill 786, passed the state House once by voice vote but still has a long way to go before becoming law. It must still win another endorsement by the state House and the Senate and the signature of Gov. Craig Benson (R), who hasn't weighed in on the issue yet. If the legislation is approved, New Hampshire would essentially be telling Washington: put up or shut up.

The cost figures for New Hampshire are hotly contested. A study from the New Hampshire School Administrators Association last November indicated that for every $1 of federal funds, the state and local governments would have to pitch in $7 to meet the No Child Left Behind requirements. The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, refutes that. It concluded in February that the state would get an additional $13.7 million in federal funds and only spend about $7.7 million, leaving $6 million to spend on other state and local education projects.

"I started this in December as being a very simple thing," Alger told Stateline.org. "Since the feds won't fully fund this (No Child Left Behind), then therefore we won't require state general funds" be spent.

He said lawmakers from other states have contacted him about his legislation but declined to identify them.

Hawaii is debating two resolutions, Concurrent Resolution 147 and House Resolution 118 from state Rep. K. Mark Takai (D) that would urge the state Board of Education to "decline any further participation" in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and return the federal money. One measure (HR 118) cleared the House once, but needs another approval.

Takai told Stateline.org that Hawaii will need an additional $176 million in '03 and an additional $260 million in '04 to implement all the new federal requirements. The NCLB is a "recipe for disaster," Takai said. Federal funding "is far below" the amount promised, Takai said.

The nation's governors struck the same theme when they when they told Bush in late February that they needed more money from Washington, D.C. U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige has said repeatedly that the federal government has increased funds for education to "historic" levels, including an extra $1 billion for the current fiscal year.

For fiscal 2004, the administration is seeking an additional $1 billion to help states turn around low-performing schools and $390 million specifically to help states develop and implement annual math and reading testing, which are required by 2005.

"States that fail to comply with the law, which was passed with a strong bipartisan support, risk losing those record federal investments in their states and in their children," said U.S. Department of Education spokesman Dan Langan when asked about the pending legislation. "We would hope that states wouldn't jeopardize their funding," he said.

No one really knows for sure how much it will cost all the states to fully implement the federal education law, but some studies suggest states will have to cough up a lot more than they are now. Seven of 10 states recently studied would have to set aside 24 percent more money for education to comply with all the requirements of No Child Left Behind, according to a paper by William J. Mathis of the Vermont Society for the Study of Education. His study will be published in the May 2003 edition of Phi Delta Kappan, a journal for educators.

Among the findings in Mathis's upcoming report:

  • Indiana would have to increase per-pupil spending to more than $7,000, up from nearly $5,500, a 31 percent increase. 
  • Maryland estimates it will cost more than $7.2 billion to bring all students up to speed to meet the new federal requirements. That's an increase of 46 percent over the $5.9 billion the state spent in fiscal 2000. 
  • Montana would have to spend between $6,000 and $8,000 per pupil, up from the current average state level of $4,500. 
  • Nebraska figures the cost would range from $5,800 per student in large K-12 districts to $11,000 in small isolated K-12 schools, That represents a 45 percent increase over current average state level of $5,600.
  • South Carolina estimates it will have to spend 24 percent more, climbing to close to $6,200 from its current base cost of $4,990 per student. 
  • In Texas, early data show that the state would have to spend an additional $6.9 billion or a 101 percent increase.
  • Vermont would have to spend $158 million in additional state money while only getting $51.6 million in money from the federal government to implement No Child Left Behind. Wisconsin would have to spend more than $11,000 per student, up from its current $8,200 level, a 35 percent increase.

"It (No Child Left Behind) is a great idea," New Hampshire state Rep. Alger said, reflecting a sentiment widely endorsed by lawmakers and educators across the country. "It's just how do you get it done in the existing system?"

Mathis said lawmakers would have a difficult time politically turning down federal money for fear of being perceived as opposing the goal of No Child Left Behind. Mathis recommended that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) refuse the federal funds in October 2002. Dean considered the idea, but Vermont education officials and lawmakers talked him out of it.

 
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