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More Vermont Districts Looking at Opt Out Possibilities

The $50 million in federal funds that flows into Vermont through the No Child Left Behind Act is a minor part of the state’s $1 billion education budget, but it comes with some major strings attached.

In accepting the money, schools are tied into a strict system of educational assessment, in which they must give yearly tests and eventually bring 95 percent of students up to a “proficient” level by the year 2013.

Consequences grow increasingly severe for each year that schools fail to show “adequate yearly progress” on these tests. Starting with offering students a chance to transfer to another school after two years of missing the mark, penalties ratchet up to the possible closure of a school after four years of low test results.

Given these repercussions and other expensive staffing requirements required by the No Child Left Behind Act, some administrators are considering whether they can afford to accept the federal money.

Others are looking at ways of distributing the funds to benefit their schools without incurring what can seem like expensive and impractical requirements, especially for rural school districts. Both actions raise legal issues that have yet to be resolved.

In Vermont, federal funds from NCLB are dispersed to supervisory unions through Title 1 funding, based on U.S. Census poverty levels, and then redistributed to individual schools.

Three Vermont supervisory unions — Windham Northeast, Orleans Southwest and Southwest Vermont — have shifted federal funds away from some schools in danger of incurring NCLB requirements and penalties, and spent the money on other district schools.

The schools must still answer to the state system of educational assessment, which is similar to the federal requirements but has fewer strings attached.

“It’s nearly as demanding as the federal law,” said Gail Taylor, accountability coordinator with the Education Department.

Some supervisory unions see the shift of funds as necessary to avoid a NCLB provision requiring an entire district to set aside 20 percent of its Title 1 budget (private tutoring and other supplemental educational services) because of a single member school’s repeated shortcomings on state tests.

State assessment regulations do not include this requirement.

But a Vermont superintendent said that in some cases this sort of reallocation might not protect a district from federal requirements.

If the money is spent on services not connected to any particular school but indirectly beneficial to all schools, such as a district-wide reading service, it is unclear how the federal requirements would apply, said Rutland Northeast Superintendent William Mathis.

“Would all schools get punished or none?” he said.

He has petitioned federal education officials to answer this question and, as of yet, has received no answer.

Mathis, who teaches educational finance at the University of Vermont, has been an outspoken critic of the No Child Left Behind Act. In his view, the law is flawed because it demands that all schools reach the same level of proficiency without considering what they may have to do to get there.

“All schools have to end up in the same place, but different schools are starting in different places and have different handicaps,” he said.

In the long run, Mathis believes the law’s costs will far outweigh its benefits.

NCLB calls for remedial services for students from deprived backgrounds, but does not provide money to cover these programs, he said. He estimates it will cost Vermont $200 million a year to implement the law bringing $50 million to the state’s schools.

Much of this money would have to be spent in a “massive investment in human resources to meet the standard,” Mathis said.

Rutland Northeast has come to no conclusions, he said, but there’s a conversation within the supervisory union about reducing the federal aid next year. Whether that is even possible under the law is a question the state hopes to resolve within the month, said the Education Department’s general counsel, William Reedy.

“There is no statute or regulation that says ‘Here’s how you opt out,’” he said. “That’s not part of the law.”

Even if supervisory unions are given the legal option of declining the federal aid, as a practical matter the state’s poorer school systems likely could not afford to extricate themselves from No Child Left Behind requirements.

The federal money provided through NCLB is a small portion of the state’s total education spending, but it is a large part of the budget in certain districts.

One example is Rutland City, where half the students are considered to be below the poverty line and Title 1 funding amounts to $1 million per year.

“It’s not as much sacrifice for other districts (to reject the money),” said city Superintendent Mary Moran. “For us to say we don’t want it is simply not possible.”

— Seth Harkness
No Child Left Behind hurts some Vt. schools
Rutland Herald


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