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States Considering Opting Out of NCLB
ATLANTA -- When President Bush signed into law his "No Child Left Behind" education act two years ago, the school-improvement plan held almost unprecedented appeal.
Leaders from both major parties lined up to support the reforms, which call for standardized testing and major school and teaching improvements.
Two years later, support is still strong for the plan's goals. But a lingering national recession has sapped money from the budgets of all 50 states, leaving some lawmakers looking for ways out of spending the millions of dollars they say they'll need to abide by the law.
"When this legislation was initiated, we were in a much different economic condition than we are now," said Scott Young, an education policy expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Everyone is behind the intent of the law. But the timing is not good."
Altogether, states were forced to cut enough spending to close a combined $21.5 billion budget deficit in 2003, according to the NCSL. And next year, 41 states face a total budget shortfall of $78.4 billion.
Current estimates predict many states would have to pay almost 25 percent more for education than they do now under the Bush reform plan.
According to one study, South Carolina estimates it will have to spend 24 percent more, going up to $6,200 per student from its current rate of $4,990 per student.
In Texas, estimates show the state would have to spend an additional $6.9 billion -- double the amount of current spending.
Creating standardized tests, improving teacher training, lowering class sizes and transporting children in failing schools to better ones are just some of the measures that are giving state leaders sticker shock when they eye the plan.
Most schools haven't resorted to selling blood plasma to pay teachers -- like a group of parents in Eugene, Ore., did -- but lawmakers in at least five states are considering backing out of No Child Left Behind's requirements.
In New Hampshire, a bill that has already passed the House says no state money would be spent on meeting the act's requirements.
Hawaii is working on a resolution urging the state school board to "decline any further participation" in No Child Left Behind.
Minnesota and Utah have asked state budget writers to determine how badly it would hurt schools to opt out of the plan, losing federal money that comes along with it.
Barnes plan similar
In Georgia, public misgivings about the plan haven't gone that far.
Still, some leaders are starting to take another look at the price tag on improving schools.
"We're aware that No Child Left Behind has a significant amount of unfunded mandates," said state Sen. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah. "I think we're all very supportive of the bill, but there's a cost involved. We need to know what that cost is."
Two years before Bush signed his plan into law, former Gov. Roy Barnes pushed through his A-Plus Education Reform Act of 2000. Many of its goals -- including smaller class sizes, standardized testing and the ability of parents to eventually pull their children out of failing schools -- were similar to the federal plan.
In 2002, state education officials said their head start on reform would make complying with Bush's plan cheaper and easier.
"These states that had no accountability in place -- no testing developed. I can only imagine what they're going through trying to pull this off," said Davis Nelson, director of Georgia's Office of Education Accountability.
But after $156 million in education budget cuts this year, top Georgia educators are afraid they'll be unable to keep paying for the state plan, let alone comply with Bush's federal law.
Georgia schools Superintendent Kathy Cox failed to convince the General Assembly not to slash money for school improvements during their session, which ended last month.
"That decision is not only going to leave us without the resources to comply with federal and state requirements," said Cox, a Republican who took office in January. "It's going to leave struggling students, teachers and principals of schools across the state without the assistance that they need to improve."
Still, Cox thinks Georgia will be able to comply with the federal act, even though it may mean cutting elements of the state's own plan.
"This is not a question of not enough funds," Cox said. "It's a question of what we're spending our funds on. We've got to quit having random school improvements."
Sticking with it
Cox and fellow Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue pushed the General Assembly to roll back key elements of the former governor's plan. They hoped to delay class size reductions, put more spending flexibility at the local level and disband the Office of Education Accountability, rolling some of its jobs into the Department of Education.
But a Democrat-controlled House would only agree to one small part of their effort: delaying class size reductions in grades 4-12 for one year.
And while local education leaders are wary, at least some say they're finding ways to pay for school improvements with limited budgets.
Glynn County is an example of how satisfying state standards today will ease the transition to the federal rules tomorrow. School officials there have already implemented the school choice, extra tutoring and reduced class sizes called for by the state without going into much of a financial crunch, administrators said.
"I think we're very fortunate," said Stephen Elrod, Glynn County's assistant superintendent for student achievement.
But Elrod said he knows neighboring counties haven't been so lucky. While Glynn County's school system has been in strong financial shape for the past several years, others in South Georgia are finding state and federal money for reforms isn't stretching far enough.
"We're probably one of the only counties that is sitting in a good spot," he said.
In the end, some states may have to, in effect, throw themselves at the mercy of the court if they can't keep up with No Child Left Behind's demands.
"We're telling people, 'Make as much of an effort as you can with the resources you have,'" Young said. "There are aspects of the bill that are absolutely right on the money and I really hesitate to tell any state just to back out of it."
School plan costly for states
May 18, 2003
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