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Thanks, but no thanks

The No Child Left Behind law came with too many strings attached. So this district rejected federal dollars and just walked away.

By Teresa MéndezStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 25, 2003



CHESHIRE, CONN.

The leafy streets of this quiet New England town seem like an unlikely place to foment a rebellion. Stately Victorians sit sheltered by thick fog here, their weathered porches sprinkled with cheery pumpkins and the last of the season's foliage. Yet despite its placid appearance, Cheshire took a bold stand against No Child Left Behind (NCLB) by refusing federal education funding.

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Cheshire is one of only three school districts in the nation to have done this. And its superintendent, David Cressy, may have found a lone chink in the sweeping education reform act. Still, he insists the move was more administrative than political - practical rather than renegade.

But scratch the surface, and another story unfolds - a quiet manifestation of nationwide frustration with the new federal education law. Few school districts are in a financial position to be able to take the stand that the 5,100-student Cheshire district has. But for many, the idea of simply walking away from the complications of the nation's education overhaul might have tremendous appeal.

Back in June, when Dr. Cressy tore open the letter announcing that his district qualified for Title I money - federal aid for children from low-income families - he was far from thrilled.

"I didn't look at it as a gift," he says wryly. "I saw it as a major problem."

Cheshire is a fairly affluent suburban town situated between New Haven and Hartford. Many of its28,000 residents work as doctors and lawyers, earning a median income of $80,000 in 1999. So it came as a surprise when Cheshire qualified for Title I funds.

The money became available late in the district's budget cycle. And it didn't amount to much - only $79,600 in a budget of $50 million.

Cressy consulted with Connecticut's Department of Education. In September, he decided the small grant wasn't worth navigating a maze of parent notification letters, piles of paperwork, and other bureaucratic hoops. Nor was it worth getting caught in the web of NCLB sanctions that can accompany Title I designation.

Cheshire's seven-member School Board agreed. They voted unanimously to reject the aid.

As for the rest of the town, the idea took a bit of getting used to.

When she first saw the screaming headline: "Local town turns down $80,000 grant," Jane Presnick Lyon was startled. But as she read the story in her local paper, this PTA president and mother of four came to support the decision. There were the strings attached to Title I, in addition to questions as to why Cheshire qualified.

In the end, Ms. Lyon decided that the federal funding came with too much government intervention. "Generally, anytime you get the federal government involved, there is so much federal bureaucracy that it tends to dilute intent," she says.

All sides, Cressy included, fervently say they support the intent of NCLB: To elevate every student to grade level in reading and math by 2014. What has critics up in arms is the law's implementation.

This ambivalence toward the nearly two-year-old law permeates Cheshire - from Cressy and the School Board to parents, like Lyon, and principals.

"I'm not sure you'll find many educators who are fans of NCLB," says Anne Sweeney, principal of Chapman Elementary School.

A recent study by the research group Public Agenda found that nearly 9 in 10 superintendents and principals have embraced standards and accountability. But only 5 percent of superintendents and 4 percent of principals believe NCLB will work as it stands today.

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