An education rebellion stirring

Fazed by the rules and reach of 'No Child Left Behind,' more states opt out of the most substantive reform in a generation. [Editor's note: The original version had an inaccurate headline.]

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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."

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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 funding.

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."

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