'No Child Left Behind' Law Sets off Revolt

 

The first salvos of a long-threatened attack on President Bush's signature education law now have been launched in what amounts to a grassroots rebellion against the No Child Left Behind Act.

Simmering frustrations from state and local officials over the 2002 law's costs, testing requirements and penalties have erupted into open conflict with the Utah Legislature voting April 19 to challenge obedience to the federal law and the nation's largest teachers' union filing suit against the act in federal court April 20. The state of Connecticut is preparing a separate lawsuit seeking full funding of NCLB's provisions.

Recent efforts by Bush education officials to head off a backlash failed to stop this week's challenges to the law, which Congress passed with bipartisan support to close education gaps between rich and poor, white and minority students. The backlash carries political weight particularly because it is being led by Republican-dominated states such as Utah, which gave Bush his largest margin of victory in November, and Texas, the president's home state.

The lawsuit filed by the National Education Association (NEA) and a handful of local school districts seeks for the first time to force the U.S. Department of Education to fully fund the law's mandates, which require states to test public school children in grades 3 through 8 annually. The groups also asked the court to prevent the federal government from denying federal education funds to states that refuse to spend their own money to comply with the law.

"The law requires Washington to pay for it, and the fact is that Washington is not keeping that promise," said NEA President Reg Weaver at a press conference in Washington, D.C. "As a result, our parents' tax dollars are getting steered away from the classroom and going towards boosting the profits of testing companies, instead of going towards their children's education."

Connecticut officials are threatening to file a similar lawsuit. In Texas, the education commissioner unilaterally has decided to ignore NCLB rules on testing students with learning disabilities, placing the state in direct violation of the federal law.

The most significant rebuke yet came from Utah, where the GOP-dominated Legislature, after more than a year of debate, adopted legislation that calls for the state's own testing requirements to take precedence over federal testing mandates.

The Utah Legislature postponed adopting the bill earlier this year at the request of Republican Gov. John Huntsman Jr. to allow time to negotiate a deal with federal officials. No deal materialized, and the Legislature passed the bill despite a warning from U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings that Utah may lose up to $76 million in federal education aid if it flouts the NCLB law. Huntsman has said he would sign the legislation.

Utah does not automatically face sanctions for passing the legislation, federal officials said. But the bill authorizes Utah schools to ignore NCLB provisions that conflict with state education policies or that cost state dollars, and doing so could cost the state federal education aid.

"Pressure has been building at the state and local level for two to three years without any outlet," said Jack Jennings, executive director of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy in Washington, which has done extensive studies on NCLB. "National leaders in Congress and the White House have not wanted to consider any amendments to the law, so (local and state officials) are looking for ways to relieve the pressure in the courts or by openly defying the law."

This week's actions come on the heels of an announcement by Spellings that federal education officials intend to be more flexible in addressing states' NCLB concerns. The announcement included specific changes to ease the rules on the numbers of learning-disabled students who must pass standardized reading and math tests.

Yet Spellings' overtures failed to diffuse tensions with state and local officials who are expecting a sharp increase in the number of schools failing to meet NCLB standards, said Jennings. Requirements of the federal law, which expects all students, regardless of ethnicity, poverty or disability, to be proficient in reading and math by 2014, soon will become even tougher. States are required to raise the bar for passing NCLB assessment tests next year and to expand testing to all students in grades 3 to 8. If a single group of students doesn't hit the mark, a whole school fails to pass federal muster on public reports.

Put those requirements together and a lot more schools will be in trouble, Jennings said.

"The two key problems are that school districts believe many aspects of the rules are too rigid and they don't have the resources or capacity to deal with all the schools that are going to be identified as needing assistance," Jennings said.

Connecticut and other states have attempted to put a price tag on complying with NCLB. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said he plans to argue in court that NCLB testing requirements will cost state taxpayers an additional $8 million annually. Cost studies by Ohio and Texas estimated that the price to state taxpayers could run as high as $1.5 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively, each year.

NEA, the teacher's union, contends that since the law's enactment in 2002, there has been a $27 billion shortfall in what Congress should have provided to meet the law's regulations. Included in the NEA's lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in Michigan, are local school districts in Michigan, Texas and Vermont.

The suit argues that local schools have been forced to divert time and resources from other classes to meet the demands of NCLB testing requirements in reading and math.

The groups contend that the federal government is violating provisions within the law that they say excuse states from paying for extra NCLB costs. A single paragraph - Section 9527A - in the 1,100-page law is at the center of the argument:

"Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize an officer or employee of the Federal Government to mandate, direct, or control a State, local education agency, or school's curriculum, program of instruction, or allocation of State or local resources, or mandate a State or any subdivision thereof to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this Act."

"Clearly this provision in NCLB holds the federal government accountable to provide enough funds to do the things required in the federal law," said David Schreve, a senior education lobbyist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan organization of state lawmakers.

Federal education officials counter that states have received more than enough funds, noting that Connecticut has received more than $750 million to implement NCLB. They point to two reports by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, that concluded NCLB is not an unfunded mandate.

"The facts are what they are," said Education Department spokesperson Susan Aspey. Ultimately, closing the achievement gap in public education "is a state and local responsibility, and it continues to be under No Child Left Behind," she said.

 
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