Some School Districts
Challenge Bush's Signature Education Law
READING, Pa.-- A small but growing number of school systems around the country are beginning to resist the demands of President Bush's signature education law, saying its efforts to raise student achievement are too costly and too cumbersome.
The school district here in Reading recently filed suit contending that
Pennsylvania, in enforcing the federal law, had unfairly judged Reading's
efforts to educate thousands of recent immigrants and unreasonably required the
impoverished city to offer tutoring and other services for which there is no
But in the presidential campaign, criticism of the law by Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, and other Democratic candidates has been drawing an enthusiastic response. School boards, Dr. Dean told a New Hampshire town meeting recently, call the law "no school boards left standing." Teachers call it "no behind left," he said.
One school that did not make adequate yearly progress this year was Somers High School in Connecticut, where 100 percent of students scored at or above the proficient level on the most recent reading test, and 99 percent on the math test. Only 94.3 percent of the sophomore class participated in the math test, however, which meant the school failed the requirement that 95 percent of students participate, causing the school to fall short of adequate yearly progress, said Thomas W. Jefferson, the Somers superintendent.
That shortfall has no consequence because the Somers Board of Education had already voted to reject $43,000 in federal financing.
Few districts across the nation could afford to give up federal aid, which in large urban districts amounts to tens of millions. But Dr. Jefferson said he believed Somers' action was viewed sympathetically by educators elsewhere.
"When the law was passed it looked positive and bipartisan," Dr. Jefferson said. "But as these regulations have become known there's a growing sense of outrage."
Two groups sent letters to Congress this fall urging lawmakers to stand fast against criticism of the law. The Business Roundtable, an organization of corporate chief executives, expressed "strong support for this landmark reform effort" and cautioned that "there are voices calling for measures that would take us backwards."
Joseph M. Tucci, president of the EMC Corporation and chairman of the group's education task force, said in an interview: "The law is about raising standards and closing achievement gaps. Is it perfect? No. But we've got to start somewhere."
In November, the Education Trust, a Washington group that helped write sections of the law, organized several dozen black and Hispanic educators to sign a letter to Congress that called the law "a huge step forward in the movement toward full participation in American democracy." The trust supports the requirement that test results be broken down to show how all demographic groups are faring, a measure aimed at exposing educational inequities.
Last year resentment toward the law largely focused on the way Washington seemed to be telling states how to make schools accountable, when many had successful homegrown programs. This year, rising frustration has shifted to money.
"The administration says the law is not an unfunded mandate, but many of us feel that it is," said Kory M. Holdaway, a Republican member of the Utah Legislature who, as chairman of the National Conference of State Legislatures' Committee on Education, voiced legislators' complaints to White House officials in a November meeting.
A survey by Public Agenda, an opinion research organization, found that almost 9 in 10 of the nation's school superintendents believed the law required them to undertake extensive initiatives — new tests, tutoring for struggling students — without enough money.
Outrage over that prospect this fall is what persuaded the Reading superintendent, Melissa Jamula, to recommend that the district file suit in December.
Reading is a city in distress. Factories are closing, and property tax revenue declined from $33.8 million to $22.3 million in eight years. The district spends about $2,000 less per student than the average Pennsylvania district. Spending has declined even as the school population has surged, with many new students requiring English instruction, Dr. Jamula said.
Thirteen of Reading's 19 schools either missed adequate yearly progress this year or were labeled as needing improvement. Although the district received at least $8.1 million in federal education money for this year, up from $4.9 million in 2001-2002, the increases have not kept pace with needs, partly because of Pennsylvania's budget crisis, Dr. Jamula said.
Keith Pierce, a spokesman, said the Pennsylvania Department of Education was prepared to defend itself legally. But he added: "They are really hurting, and when you couple that with all the requirements of the federal law, it's just a mess."
Richard L. Guida, the lawyer who drew up Reading's suit, voiced frustration with the law. "What if they told us to build all new school buildings?" he asked. "Well that'd be nice, but we can't afford that. This is not an `Ozzie and Harriet' environment here. Is the federal government going to wave a wand and all our problems are going to go away?"