Mandates and mutinies

April 12, 2005

MANY GOVERNORS have complained bitterly that the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind law's mostly laudable, but often onerous, mandates have been consistently underfunded, and they've been consistently miffed at having to make up the difference. After months of verbal protests, Connecticut has declared open warfare. The state attorney general announced last week that the state will file suit, challenging the law as an unfunded mandate - and he's looking for other states to join the fray.

Meantime, in a carefully orchestrated announcement, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings also said last week that states making progress on other fronts will be allowed to set more realistic expectations for special education students. While increased flexibility is welcome, the Department of Education is still a long way from satisfying the concerns of the states.

The department is right not to let states off the hook for making sure that low-performing schools be held to higher standards or that achievement gaps among different groups of students, particularly between whites and minorities, be significantly reduced, if not eliminated. A recent annual survey by the Center on Education Policy of how the law is being carried out found that student test scores are going up in many states, but experts caution that it's way too early to say that students are actually learning more. And the survey also showed that many school districts are engaged in temporary triage - beefing up instruction in reading and math, the first subjects tested under NCLB, while momentarily decreasing time spent on subjects that will be tested later, such as science.

There's no question that one of the biggest worries among the states is whether they'll have enough financial and human resources to fulfill NCLB's essential goal to have every child performing at grade level by 2014. Connecticut estimates that in the next three years, it will have to spend $41 million more than Washington has appropriated to administer annual tests, from grades 3 to 8, that measure student achievement and to fulfill other requirements under the law. The state insists that it can just as well determine how well, or poorly, students are doing through tests that it already gives in grades 4, 6, 8 and 10.

Similarly, Utah seems prepared to forgo federal funds by pushing a law that would give state educational goals preference over federal goals. Whatever happens with these threatened state actions, the department's efforts to be more flexible, however welcome, may not be enough. More meaningful dialogue and commitment to work with the states are clearly needed to deal with threatened mutiny.

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