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.

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.

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.

Cheshire is not a lone dissenter. Nearby Somers and Marlborough also turned down Title I funding. And murmurs of unrest have surfaced in Virginia and Utah - where a lawmaker proposed rejecting all of the state's $100 million in Title I awards. Last year, Vermont, too, considered refusing its share. While it accepted the money this year, a cluster of rural districts found a way to shuffle their dollars to avoid penalties.

The most piercing criticism of NCLB has been aimed at the tangle of sanctions that await schools that don't measure up.

Penalties include requiring under- performing schools to pay for students to attend higher-performing schools, or provide them with extra services, like private tutoring. After three years of inadequate progress, a school's staff may be replaced. And after five years, the school can be taken over by the state.

Even without Title I status, each of Cheshire's eight schools must comply with federal testing requirements. This year, 149 of Connecticut's 1,100 elementary and middle schools missed the mark for "adequate yearly progress." But Cheshire's schools are all on target, which means that even had the district taken the money, it wouldn't have faced federal penalties.

The US Department of Education has yet to make a final decision on the fate of schools that opt out of Title I, according to a government spokesman. Until it does, Connecticut has assumed that these schools are exempt from federal consequences - although they still face the state's less stringent penalties.

Superintendent Cressy is - literally - in the December of his career. Come Dec. 31, after a career spanning 22 years, with six of those spent at Cheshire, he will retire as superintendent.

The law that has inspired Cressy's last stand makes him crazy, he says, particularly because of the punitive measures for schools described as "failing."

School Board Chairman Richard Lau says Cheshire's decision to reject federal funds was actually an easy one.

The district last qualified for Title I dollars over a decade ago. Cressy and the Connecticut Department of Education speculate that a statistical aberration - a 3,000-person prison - made Cheshire eligible again this year.

Set back from the road, facing Chapman Elementary School, is the Cheshire Correctional Institution. Except for the razor wire encircling its brick walls, the prison looks like a college campus.

Cressy suspects the census bureau included inmates as part of the data used to identify Title I schools.

But according to a representative for the US Department of Education, new pockets of poverty in Cheshire could also explain the award.

This raises concern that children who qualify for Title I in districts that shun the aid may miss out on special services.

"I think it's shortsighted," says Ross Wiener, policy director at the nonprofit Washington-based Education Trust.

Despite the swirl of rebel talk in other states, experts believe the Connecticut districts will remain the lone resisters.

Many of the schools most troubled by NCLB penalties have greater numbers of low-income students. They can't afford to turn away a single federal penny, says Mary Fulton, policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

When asked how NCLB could be reformed, Superintendent Cressy doesn't have an easy solution, except to say that there needs to be far more discussion about the shortcomings of the law.

"And it bothers me," he says, "that the authors of the legislation aren't talking about it yet."

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