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Local discontent with 'No Child Left Behind' grows

'Hot spot' states could expand to eight, a new report finds. But supporters of the law still say it's effective.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 19, 2005

Just as students are heading back to school, frustration with the federal No Child Left Behind education law is hitting new heights at the grass-roots level from Maine to California.

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Three states are already in open rebellion: Connecticut, Utah, and Colorado, which have either planned lawsuits or passed laws that trump the federal mandates. At least five other states - Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, and Virginia - are deemed "hot spots" that could join the revolt in the coming school year. And a total of 21 states are now considering some kind of legislation critical of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), according to a study released this week by the Civil Society Institute, a nonpartisan advocacy group in Massachusetts.

It rounded up a report of this dissatisfaction to call attention to what it says is a disconnect between the federal government and the educators, students, parents, and local lawmakers that live with NCLB every day.

The law's supporters counter that it is working, with test scores going up. They acknowledge there's frustration, but they contend it has more to do with the level of federal intervention in what used to be a primarily state and local issue. They also praise the federal Department of Education (DOE) for being flexible in dealing with state concerns.

But several independent education experts, as well as state legislators from both the Republican and Democratic sides of the aisle, say that even with this flexibility, frustration is on the rise.

"There is a palpable increase in the level of dissatisfaction that I see, but it's not being translated into legislation in Congress," says Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy in Washington. "There's really a disjuncture here between a growing dissatisfaction and the lack of a political response."

The roots of frustration

The frustration on the local level has to do with what educators call the rigidity of the law, which requires high-stakes, standardized testing and penalizes schools deemed as failing to make "adequate yearly progress." They're also concerned about a lack of funding to pay for the testing and the remedial services needed to ensure students make the grade.

For instance, Connecticut estimates it will cost the state $41.6 million more to implement NCLB than the federal government is providing. Local communities will bear additional costs, too.

The White House and the DOE dispute that. They point to two studies done by the Government Accountability Office in New Jersey and Massachusetts that found those states had enough federal resources to implement the law. They also note that since NCLB was passed, federal education spending has increased more than 30 percent.

"It is unfortunate that some appear to think that reform is more trouble than it's worth," says DOE spokeswoman Samara Yudof. "No Child Left Behind is working: Evidence from both the Nation's Report Card and the states' own data prove it."