States hit back on school reform law

Connecticut, Utah, and Texas are either refusing to adopt all of the No Child Left Behind Act or suing the US to block it.

An education rebellion is under way from Utah to Connecticut.

Three years after the passage of President Bush's controversial education reform known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the law is facing its most significant challenges yet - and they're coming in the courts, state legislatures, and local education departments.

Connecticut has announced it's suing the US Department of Education, claiming the law mandates changes without giving the funding to carry them out. The education commissioner in Texas unilaterally decided Washington's requirements were flawed, and she simply disregarded part of them - a kind of civil disobedience.

And Tuesday, Utah, the state that gave Mr. Bush his biggest win last November, is about to provide the most stinging rebuke yet to NCLB. In a special session, the state Senate is expected to pass overwhelmingly a bill to ensure that in a conflict between state and federal education regulations, Utah's rules will trump Washington's dictates. The House has already passed the bill, and if the Senate does as well, Utah is putting at risk $120 million it receives in federal education aid.

"The paramount question is who runs this show: Is it state and local government or Washington?" says state Sen. Thomas Hatch (R). "Are we going to let the federal government contribute a very small percentage of the education budget and dictate what we can or cannot do, or are we going to maintain control at the local level?"

The local rebellions come on the heels of an announcement by US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings that the department intends to exercise more flexibility than under her predecessor in addressing states' concerns about the law. NCLB requires annual testing in Grades 3 to 8 and sets out penalties for schools that fail to show "adequate yearly progress." In making the announcement, however, Secretary Spellings said there were certain "bright lines of the statute," such as reporting annual testing results by student subgroups, that "are not up for negotiation." This led some frustrated state officials like Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal to refer to any new flexibility as "more rhetoric than reality."

Historically, there's always been tension between states and federal government on education reform. When President Clinton tried to implement new standards, he also met resistance, often from Democratic governors. Now Bush finds himself facing similar concerns from some Republican governors, including Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell.

Yet the heightened frustrations are also coming at a time when most states are reporting some success in raising test scores. While they insist that's in part because of state reforms put in place before NCLB became law, they do acknowledge it's had some positive effect.

"But they also see two big problems with the law: its rigid rules and lack of help for schools that have been identified as not doing well," says Jack Jennings, executive director of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy in Washington, which has done the most extensive studies yet of the impact of NCLB. "The law is good at identifying them, but the money isn't there to help them."

That's Connecticut's main concern. It contends that complying with NCLB's testing requirements would cost state taxpayers an additional $8 million annually.

For 20 years, Connecticut has tested in the fourth, sixth, eighth, and 10th grades. Washington wants the state to add tests in the third, fifth, and seventh grades. The state says it would rather use the money to fund problem areas it has identified. "Our children are robbed of the resources they need ... to improve their classrooms and educations," says Mr. Blumenthal.

The state is also arguing that because Washington is not providing enough money to implement its requirements, NCLB is essentially an unfunded mandate and this is in violation of its own law.

The US Department of Education counters that it has provided enough funds, noting that Connecticut has received $750 million to implement NCLB.

Raymond Simon, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, says it's "disappointing" that Connecticut chose a legal challenge. "The additional federal funds that have been given to the states have been sufficient and in record amounts," he says.

The department also points out that minorities score significantly lower than whites in the state, and it argues that NCLB could force improvement.

In Texas, the concern is about the federal requirement that children with disabilities and those who are still learning English be tested using the same grade-level standards applied to others. With Spellings's announcement of more flexibility, 3 percent of students will be exempt from the grade-level tests - a percentage decided on by the department, based on nationwide averages. But Texas decided to exempt 9 percent, contending that including the scores of children with disabilities unfairly skews test results.

"In Texas, it's just an out-and-out case of civil disobedience," says David Shreve, an education expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. "They're saying it just doesn't work here, and we're not going to follow it."

The US Department of Education has given Texas until the end of this week to come up with an alternative that will not exempt so many students. If it doesn't, Spellings has threatened to cut some of Texas' federal funds. Mr. Simon refused to comment on the Texas situation, saying instead he was waiting for its reply.

But he insists that NCLB is working and that this is no time to be talking about fundamental changes. "The achievement gap is narrowing and student achievement is up, so now is not the time to deviate from the mission to weaken or back down on the standards," he says. "We'll work with states to continue to make it less bureaucratic and easier for the states to accomplish the mission."

For their part, the states don't disagree with the law's fundamental mission, just the way the DOE is implementing it.

"NCLB is absolutely desirable in concept and goals. No one disagrees with its objectives," says Blumenthal of Connecticut. "It's the implementation that's so faulty - the one-size-fits-all approach and the inflexibility on unfunded mandates."

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