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In Connecticut, Two Two Towns Reject NCLB
"To say Title I comes with strings attached is an understatement. It comes with ropes and anchors attached."
--Thomas W. Jefferson, Superintendent of Schools, Somer, CT
Although President Bush's school reform law offers money to help needy public schools meet tough new academic standards, at least two Connecticut towns have just said no.
Cheshire and Somers, along with a handful of schools in Vermont, are believed to be among the first places in the nation to turn down grants from the U.S. Department of Education's Title I program.
By rejecting the federal anti-poverty grants, the school systems not only avoid some regulations and paperwork, but also become exempt from possible future sanctions under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Although schools in Connecticut's lean economy are not accustomed to turning down money, Cheshire's decision not to take nearly $80,000 in Title I money and Somers' rejection of about $45,000 are rooted, in part, in skepticism about the federal education reforms.
Both Cheshire and Somers are relatively affluent towns but became eligible for Title I this year after census figures revealed pockets of poverty.
"All the bureaucratic nonsense associated with No Child Left Behind ... really doesn't fit a community like Cheshire," said David A. Cressy, the town's school superintendent. "It just, to me, didn't make sense."
In Somers, School Superintendent Thomas W. Jefferson said his town learned of its eligibility for the money long after the school budget had been finalized and decided not to add programs hastily.
"To say Title I comes with strings attached is an understatement," Jefferson said. "It comes with ropes and anchors attached."
The No Child Left Behind Act, signed by Bush last year, expands testing programs and imposes corrective sanctions on schools receiving Title I funds whose students fail to meet state standards in reading and mathematics. It also provides additional Title I money to schools educating low-income children.
The law's sanctions grow progressively more demanding each year a school fails to meet standards but apply only to schools that receive Title I money. Those that fail to make adequate progress two years in a row are required to allow students to transfer to other local schools. In later years, those schools can be required to pay for individual tutoring, replace teachers, change curriculum or even turn over control to state government.
Soon after the No Child Left Behind Act took effect, officials in some states, including Vermont, weighed the possibility of rejecting their entire allotments of Title I money, but no state followed through on the idea.
In Vermont, however, a few local schools did forgo small grants. The first was Hazen Union School in Hardwick, which turned down about $10,000 to avoid penalties for failing to make enough improvement in reading and math scores.
"What we didn't want to do is have the penalty phase kick in any sooner than we need to. [The law] has a punitive overtone to it," said David Bickford, assistant superintendent for the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union, which oversees Hazen Union.
A government spokesman said the U.S. Department of Education has no data on whether local schools or districts have taken similar action, but several education analysts said they believe few places in the nation have actually turned down the money.
"It's the first time I've seen schools do this. Normally you take every penny you can get," said Patty Sullivan of the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington, D.C.
In Connecticut, schools that do not receive money under Title I still are subject to the testing and accountability provisions of No Child Left Behind, and could be required to take corrective action by the state. However, those schools would be exempt from the federal sanctions, according to the state Department of Education.
In addition, those schools would be able to avoid requirements such as sending No Child Left Behind reports to all parents, state officials said.
Title I provides extra reading and mathematics instruction to children in low-income schools and is the federal government's biggest aid program for elementary and secondary schools. About 85 percent of Connecticut's public school districts receive Title I money.
Neither Cheshire nor Somers had any schools this year on the state's list of schools that have not made adequate progress toward the No Child Left Behind standards, but the law is scheduled to make the standards progressively more difficult. Cressy said he is opposed to the law's use of sanctions, "as if punishing schools in this way is going to make them better."
At least one other Connecticut school system, Marlborough, also is considering whether to reject its small Title I grant. It became eligible this year for about $8,400.
"With amounts that small, the cost for administering it could exceed the amount of the grant," said Joseph Reardon, superintendent in Marlborough, which has just one elementary school.
Any funds rejected by local schools are returned to the state for redistribution to other Connecticut schools, state officials said.
Robert A. Frahm
Two Towns Reject Federal School Funds
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