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Education Reporter

Grading NCLB: States Resent Oversight,
But Some Funding Gripes Don't Add Up
Some Goals Seem Impractical, But Accountability Is Benefit 
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) has been a magnet for criticism since its enactment by large bipartisan majorities in Congress. What is the reality behind the rhetoric?

The right, along with many state officials, has complained of unfunded mandates and a large new intrusion by U.S. Department of Education into educational matters traditionally left to the states by our federal system. The Department of Education alone has grown by nearly 70% in the last two years, according to Cato Institute analysts.

The Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates on January 23 passed by a vote of 98-1 a resolution calling on Congress to exempt states like Virginia from the program's requirements. The resolution states that the federal law "represents the most sweeping intrusions into state and local control of education in the history of the United States" and will cost "literally millions of dollars that Virginia does not have." Virginia's main objection is that federal requirements conflict with Virginia's testing program, in place since 1998 and one of the toughest in the nation.

The Republican-controlled Utah House voted February 10 to prohibit the use of Utah money to comply with the federal law. Utah's superintendent of public instruction predicted the bill would become law. Vermont enacted a similar law last year. (nytimes.com, 2-11-04) Legislators in Connecticut, Maine, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio and elsewhere have threatened similar actions. Some school districts have rejected federal money rather than comply with the red tape. (nytimes.com, 1-2-04)

Yet federal spending on K-12 education went up sharply under NCLB and will top $41 billion in 2004. Statistical reporting and identification of failing schools were already required by federal law before NCLB. The Department of Education reports that states are currently sitting on nearly $6 billion in unspent federal education dollars acquired between 2000 and 2002. (Wall Street Journal, 2-12-04)

"The truth is, the federal government has been increasing education spending more quickly than the states can spend it," said Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), chairman of the House Education Committee. (Associated Press, 1-8-04) The General Accounting Office concluded last May that states are getting all the funding they need to implement NCLB's testing requirements. Federal dollars account for 7% to 11% of the $400 billion spent on American schools each year.

Many Democrats have nevertheless angrily charged that funding hasn't risen to the levels authorized by NCLB. The National Education Association, claiming funding has fallen short by $8 billion to $9 billion a year, tried unsuccessfully last July to persuade Congress to suspend the NCLB's accountability requirements until the law is "fully funded." (washingtontimes.com, 9-23-03) The trouble with this argument is that "budget authority" is not a promise to spend, but a spending cap. The Clinton Administration did not spend up to authorized amounts on preexisting programs reauthorized by NCLB, either. (nationalreview.com, 10-16-03)

While the law clearly increased federal involvement in K-12 education, the federal government was already involved in spending - just without much accountability. NCLB imposes no national curriculum or measure of progress, but instead lets states devise their own plans. Schools need not meet a fixed federal standard; they must show improvement toward goals that the state sets. The testing required by the law must cover only basic skills in reading, math and science. The main objective of the act is to make all children proficient in language arts and math by 2014, which is not too much to ask of an educational system. States remain free to experiment widely with curricular content. And if they don't want to comply with NCLB, they can forgo federal funding, as some districts have done.

One indication of how much latitude is still afforded to the states is Education Week's finding that "Many states have set the bar so low for children who are learning English that students in those states could leave high school without being taught to read or write the language, yet their schools would face no consequences under federal education law." (11-19-03)

Another bone of contention with educators is that NCLB imposes student achievement standards that are unrealistic. Schools that fail to show adequate yearly progress, as measured by test scores for all demographic subgroups, face a range of penalties, from paying for private tutoring, to paying transportation costs for children transferring out, to eventual firing of a school's entire staff and management. Thousands of schools were branded last fall as "needing improvement." (New York Times, 10-16-03)

There is no doubt that the requirement of yearly progress in all subgroups at a school - based on ethnicity, family income, disability, and limited English - can be difficult to satisfy, particularly in more racially and economically diverse districts. "If this law remains as it is, and the rules remain as they are, the vast majority of schools in the country will be identified as in need of improvement," complained Al Mance, executive director of the Tennessee Education Association. (knoxnews.com, 1-8-04)

However, the Education Department has shown flexibility in relaxing some of the rules. Federal officials announced in February that the test scores of recent immigrants who do not speak English will no longer be considered in determining whether a school is meeting annual targets for academic progress. In their first year at a U.S. school, students with limited English skills will be exempted from some tests. Education Department officials have determined that the list of subpar schools could shrink by 20% to 25% in some states as a result of this change. (nytimes.com, 2-20-04) Second, students will be counted as part of the limited-English subgroup for two years after they exit their bilingual program.

These policy changes significantly ease pressure on schools with high Hispanic enrollment. A California report released in early February found that students who speak Spanish as their first language take an average of 6.7 years to master English, lagging behind most other immigrant children. Mandarin speakers take only 3.6 years. (latimes.com, 2-14-04)

Ultimately, the No Child Left Behind Act is about increasing accountability. The road to educational improvement may be bumpy, and the federal spending and bureaucracy may be skyrocketing, but the overall purpose of the law is to shine light on failing schools, incentivizing them to change or lose federal money. Poor students stand to gain the most of all from the law's requirement of "adequate yearly progress" in all subgroups, which exposes the large achievement gap that exists even in schools with respectable average test scores.

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