An education rebellion stirring
The Christian Science Monitor
February 11, 2004
By Amanda Paulson | Staff writer
[Editor's note: The original version had an inaccurate headline.]
Fazed by the rules and reach of 'No Child Left Behind,'
more states opt out of the most substantive reform in a generation.
CHICAGO – From Utah to Virginia, a revolt is building in
classrooms and legislatures against the biggest education reform in a quarter
century. As elements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act take effect, state
and local education officials, upset over the stringency of testing requirements
and the cost of implementation, are openly criticizing the measure - and even
threatening to defy it.
The rebellion, in some cases led by GOP lawmakers, could endanger a signature
achievement of the Bush administration in an election year. At the least, it
highlights the frequent tensions between policies in Washington and their
effects in the classroom.
"I think Bush got maximum benefit for this bill on the day he signed it," says
Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan think
tank in Washington. "Now that we're into the very difficult implementation
problems, he's probably going to get tarnished with the backlash."
The revolt has been growing:
• Several districts in Vermont and Connecticut have refused federal funds rather
than comply with all No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandates. A district in
Pennsylvania is suing the state over what it sees as inequities in the law.
• At least seven states have passed resolutions criticizing the law or asking
for federal waivers on some requirements.
• Maine is considering a bill - similar to one in Vermont - to prevent state
funding of reforms.
• In Utah, a bill to opt out of NCLB entirely (and so forgo many federal funds)
has passed the house education committee.
On one level, it's not surprising that the chorus of critics is growing louder.
NCLB is the most significant education reform in a generation, and it is a
morass of complex requirements on everything from who's tested to who can teach.
Schools can land on a watch list for something as simple as testing only 94
percent of students - or 94 percent of a subgroup, like non-English speakers.
Many districts don't understand what they're trying to implement.
Even the fiercest critics tend to agree with the law's philosophy, particularly
its efforts to separate gains for groups like low-income kids, and make schools
accountable for progress in each group.
What they don't always agree with is implementation. "Wealthy districts don't
have to do much at all under this law," says Gary Orfield, a Harvard education
professor. "Other districts face demands that are somewhere between difficult
and absurd. It's putting maximum pressure on the most vulnerable districts."
A few states dislike federal intrusion into what's always been a state arena.
"There's not anything [Virginia is] going to learn from the fact that we have to
give these additional tests," says James Dillard (R), of Virginia's House of
Delegates. "If Clinton had done this, Republicans would have been up in arms."
He pauses. "Republicans are up in arms."
He and others say that some things that sounded good in Washington - like making
non-English speakers a subgroup that must show yearly progress - don't always
work. As such students learn English, they move out of the group - detracting
from group "achievement" by their success.
On that point, even the Department of Education concedes there may be a problem.
The rule could be tweaked, says Undersecretary of Education Eugene Hickok. But
he's not open to major revision. "If you change the law, you give those who have
another agenda - gutting the law - the chance to do just that," he says. "Where
it needs to be strengthened, we can do that with regulations."
For many of the states complaining, however, their problem isn't so much the
law's details as the possibility that they may foot the bill. A recent Ohio
study concluded the law would cost the state $1.5 billion a year to achieve 100
percent proficiency (a theoretical goal most educators see as impossible).
States worry that, amid their own tight budgets, they'll pay for tutoring,
transferring, and other mandates. "They got burned" on federal laws like
Medicare and special education, says Mr. Jennings. "They don't want to get
burned on this."
Still, while states and districts bluster, opting out isn't always an option.
Federal funds account for just 8 percent of the nation's education budget, but
most of it goes to the poorest districts, who lack the tax base for local
A few districts in Connecticut and Vermont made headlines last fall when they
turned down federal funds - releasing them from sanctions, if not from testing -
but for most of them, the funds were a small part of their budget.
Melissa Jamula, superintendent of Pennsylvania's Reading School District, would
like to do the same thing, but "it's not an option." She needs every cent of the
$10 million in federal funds.
So she's suing the state education department. Reading is being asked to spend
money it doesn't have, she says. Plus, she doesn't like the state rule demanding
that subgroups with 40 or more kids be looked at separately. It means only large
urban districts have to separate those groups, she says, making it more likely
that Reading schools - already spending $2,000 less per child than the state
average - will land on a watch list. "I'm 100 percent behind the philosophy,"
she says. "But you can't tell children they're not succeeding, you can't tell
schools in poor areas they're not succeeding, without giving them the
resources.... It's just not fair."