States defy rules of federal No Child Left Behind law

Rigid requirements, lack of funds a concern

September 05, 2005|By ST. PETERSBURG TIMES

WASHINGTON -- It's not unusual for states to chafe at federal rules. But the state revolt against the federal law that filled America's classrooms with standardized tests is unprecedented.

Forty-seven states are questioning, opposing or rebelling against the most sweeping education reform in a generation.

In Utah, lawmakers ordered that state policy take precedence over federal policy. In Texas, educators were fined for failing to test students with learning disabilities as federal rules require. In Colorado, the state gave its school districts permission to opt out of the law.

Now Connecticut has sued the federal government, and more states are contemplating the same.

"With any piece of federal legislation, there is always a pushback from states," said David Shreve, a lobbyist with the National Conference of State Legislatures. "But this is unique and unprecedented and deep, very deep."

In the beginning -- 2001 -- Republicans and Democrats alike couldn't get behind No Child Left Behind fast enough.

Enacted the following year, the law became the centerpiece of President Bush's education policy and the crowning domestic achievement of his first term. But with each passing year, discontent has festered and spread.

States and school districts generally agree with the 1,000-page law's ambitious goals -- hold schools more accountable and ensure achievement for all students -- but not with the way it requires them to accomplish that. It requires that students take standardized reading and math tests. If students do not perform well enough, schools must provide transfers and tutors. If enough progress still is not made, the law requires costly remedies such as firing staff or extending the school year.

"People in good faith believed this was going to hold states and districts accountable," said Karen Symms Gallagher, dean of education at the University of Southern California.

By some measures, it has: According to the Center on Education Policy, nearly three-quarters of the states and school districts reported improvements on the required tests.

But the states complain about money -- the lack of it. It costs millions to test every student, every year, in grades three through eight, and once in high school, plus pay for penalties.

In four years of funding since Congress passed the law, it has budgeted $27 billion less than needed; an additional $13 billion shortfall is expected next year.

Connecticut, which filed its lawsuit last month, faces a $40 million shortfall.

"The goals of the No Child Left Behind Act are laudable ... but the federal government had failed in implementing them," said Richard Blumenthal, the state's attorney general. "Unfunded mandates are all too common. These specific unfunded mandates are unlawful."

Another big complaint is how rigid the federal government is about the rules. More than 40 states have asked the U.S. Department of Education to ease up on everything from teacher certification to rules for testing special education students.

U.S. Department of Education spokesman Chad Colby attributed much of the opposition to special interest groups, such as the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers union, which filed a lawsuit. Colby said many school districts and state officials support the law.

But almost all states have asked the department for flexibility. The federal government is granting some.

Many educators hold out little hope that the president or Congress will undo a law that started with such overwhelming support. "I will do everything I can to prevent people from unwinding it," Bush said this spring.

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