State Republicans Assail Bush's Education Law
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act will cost Ohio $1.4 billion more annually than it gets from the federal government for public education, a new study concludes, giving powerful ammunition to critics who say the law is too burdensome.
The report, commissioned by the Republican-controlled Ohio General Assembly, is the first to put a price tag on the broad education measure and feeds a growing backlash that remarkably is putting state Republicans at odds with their party's leaders in the White House and Congress.
"Like every other state, we're financially strapped," said state Sen. Robert Gardner (R), chairman of the Ohio Senate's Education Committee. If the law is going to work, Gardner said, "the dollars have got to flow."
The Ohio report coincides with a blast at No Child Left Behind by the Virginia House of Delegates, also controlled by Republicans. By a vote of 98 to one, the Virginia legislators adopted a resolution last week calling Bush's signature domestic program "the most sweeping federal intrusion into state and local control of education in the history of the United States."
The Virginia resolution criticized the "very expensive mandates" of the law, which requires statewide testing and extra services for students at low-scoring schools. The sole dissenter was a Democrat. The Virginia Senate is considering a similar resolution.
Several other states also are studying whether costs of the law outweigh the benefits: Indiana, Minnesota, Maine and Vermont, plus the Republican strongholds of Utah and North Dakota. Washington's legislature is considering a resolution similar to Virginia's.
State officials elsewhere also have challenged the law, sometimes for being too rigid or in conflict with existing testing practices. Late last year, Utah House Speaker Martin Stephens (R) led a group of state legislators to the White House to suggest changes.
In a 2003 letter to Education Secretary Rod Paige, Gov. Judy Martz (R) of Montana and Gov. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico complained that rural states will have an especially hard time attracting teachers who can meet the law's new requirement for a "highly qualified" teacher in each classroom.
Bush is giving no quarter on No Child Left Behind, which he regards as one of his most significant legislative achievements. In his Jan. 20 State of the UnionAddress, he said he has provided a 36 percent increase in education spending and that he will not back down on higher standards for all children in public education.
"Testing is the only way to identify and help students who are falling behind," Bush said. "This nation will not go back to the days of simply shuffling children along from grade to grade without them learning the basics."
Federal funding for K-12 education has jumped from $28 billion two years ago to nearly $36 billion for the latest fiscal year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But that amount totals just 8 percent of the nation's overall public school spending.
According to the Ohio study, the state netted an additional $44 million in federal education money this year a 7 percent increase from last year. But that is nowhere near the projected costs of the new federal requirements.
The study projects Ohio will have to spend $105 million to hire and train teachers, put in place testing and compile test scores. The law's biggest costs, more than $1.3 billion, will be needed for remedial programs such as after-school tutoring and summer school to raise student performance on tests, the study said.
"I'd be real happy right now if we just went with Ohio's plan," said state Sen. Gardner. The Ohio Department of Education already has in place statewide testing and high standards that should suffice, he said.
Ohio legislators are waiting for other states to conclude similar studies, Gardner said. "Then we'll go arm-in-arm to the federal government," he said.
Under No Child Left Behind, states must annually test all public school students from third through eighth grade and must report separate scores for five different ethnic groups, special-education students and those with limited English fluency. States also must set benchmarks for passing tests. Schools that do not meet annual testing targets must pay for students to transfer to higher performing schools or provide extra services such as tutoring.
Concerns about the cost of No Child Left Behind are not new. Several prominent Republican state legislators signed a letter to Congress in 2001 that said federal funding was insufficient.
"We fear that compliance with the federal mandates may be undercut unless states severely reduce other vital areas of their budgets," the letter said.
Defenders of the law contend it is still unclear whether states will run short of money to meet the law's requirements.
"What No Child Left Behind is about, ultimately, is ending an era where the federal government sent billions of dollars without requiring accountability," said Dave Schnittger, a spokesman for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce.
In a press release, U.S. Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) called his state's study "flawed" because it did not count federal grants to assist disabled students and said it is a "wild guess" about how much it will cost to improve student test scores. In addition, the study is not actually evaluating No Child Left Behind, but Ohio's "complicated set of annual benchmarks," he charged.
A recent survey by the Center on Education Policy found that, for the most part, state and local officials are supportive of the goals of No Child Left Behind. But requiring special education students and those who speak little English to pass the same tests as all other students remains the biggest concern for many, according to the Center's study. A total of 21 percent of the nation's districts have schools that did not meet state benchmarks in 2003, the Center reported.
Lori Drummer, director of the education task force for the American Legislative Exchange Council, said No Child Left Behind is not perfect. but defended the standards for disadvantaged students. "These students have for so long been pushed into a corner," she said.
Gardner, the Ohio state senator, said the goal of having every special education student pass the state tests is an admirable one. "But we have to be realistic," he said.
Despite the studies and strong words, states are unlikely to take any legislative action that would make them ineligible for federal funds, predicted John F. Jennings, founder and director of the Center on Education Policy. "This is table-thumping, trying to get the president's attention."