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Only a Few Schools Have Opted Out --So Far

Ohanian Comment: Look at what's happening: You've got a progressive Vermont superintendent urging the state to turn down the money and a Republican Utah legislator saying the same thing. Unfortunately, the Utah school folks want the money, but that's another story. The point here is that progressives and conservatives both want the Feds out of local school matters.

10/28/03 -- So far just a few school districts -- two in Vermont and three in Connecticut -- have decided not to apply for, or to strongly consider rejecting, Title I money connected with the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act rather than abide by its rules.

But many more districts, and even entire states, might view participation in NCLB as more trouble than it's worth.

Hazen Union School District in Hardwick, Vt., was the first to say no thanks. It decided not to apply for about $10,000 to avoid penalties for failing to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) in reading and math

"I think a lot of school leaders are looking very closely at these issues," says Winton Goodrich, associate director of the Vermont School Boards Association. "In Hazen's case, their Title I funding was only $10,000, and they felt it would cost them over $100,000 to implement the changes that would be necessary."

"NSBA's advocacy department is continuing its lobbying efforts to call attention to the problems facing local school districts across the nation as they begin to implement NCLB," says NSBA Federal Relations Director Reggie Felton. "We believe such information will influence congressional actions next year."

NCLB requires schools to bring all students in grades 3-8 -- including those in certain racial groups, poor students, special education students, and English language learners -- to the "proficient" level in reading and math by the 2013-14 school year.

Sanctions for failing to meet AYP only affect schools receiving Title I money. But if schools continue to fail to make steady progress, the entire school district can be subject to increasingly onerous sanctions, from staff reorganization to state takeover.

William Mathis, superintendent of Rutland (Vt.) Northeast Supervisory Union, has advised the school board to look at whether it should accept the $500,000 that NCLB would bring his district.

He has also advised the state legislative oversight committee for NCLB that it would be better for Vermont to forego the $52 million in Title I funding it would receive rather than face potential costs of $200 million to comply with the law.

"And if you look at this as it plays through the teacher regulations and the paraprofessional regulations and so forth, then this thing could triple or quadruple the amount of remedial costs that we would have to pay," he says.

"Vermont just happens to be one of those few states that's fiscally healthy," he says, "and we can't do it. And we're not talking about the $80 billion deficit the other states are facing." Mathis says the expectations of NCLB are simply not realistic.

In Connecticut, the school districts of Cheshire, Somers, and Marlborough decided not to apply for $43,000, 80,000, and $8,400 respectively. "To say Title I comes with strings attached is an understatement," says Somers Superintendent Thomas W. Jefferson. "It comes with ropes and anchors attached."

In Connecticut, schools that do not take money under Title I are still subject to the testing and accountability provisions of NCLB, but are not subject to the federal sanctions and would be able to avoid such NCLB requirements as sending school report cards to parents, according to officials at the state education department.

Mark V. Joyce, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, did an analysis of the impact of NCLB costs on New Hampshire school systems and concludes that there is not enough money attached to the act to support its goals.

In a letter to the citizens of New Hampshire, Joyce writes: "We believe that for every $77 in new money school districts receive from the law, they will at a minimum be required to spend an additional $575 per pupil of local tax dollars. The law is full of unfunded and under funded mandates."

In Utah, which ranks last in per-pupil spending, state Rep. Margaret Dayton (R) is drafting legislation calling for the state to ignore the law and turn down the $100 million of federal money that goes with it.

"Does Utah want this much intrusiveness, or do we want our schools to be more accountable to parents and their communities? It's very intrusive to the state," she says in an article published in the Salt Lake Tribune.

"I can't imagine that she's serious about opting out of NCLB and losing the federal dollars connected with it," says Gary Cameron, executive director of the Utah School Superintendents Association. "And I can't imagine that the legislature could seriously consider her proposal knowing that they do not have money to pump into the education system to offset federal dollars."

There are several districts in Utah with large numbers of low-income, minority, and limited-English-speaking students, he says. "It would be absolutely devastating to them because there is no way that our state can finance the dollars lost."

Cameron says he hopes Drayton "has brought this issue to the table just to open dialogue among the legislature and the public regarding the number of requirements associated with NCLB."

"I don't believe that anybody wants to reject federal dollars," says Milton Liverman, superintendent of the Suffolk, Va., school district. But he says he told his school board that it might want to consider opting out in the future. The $3.5 million in NCLB money the district receives represents about 3.4 percent of its $102 million operating budget.

"We need to look at our options regarding this money," he says, "because it's reaching a point that the dollars that are being provided may be of minimal benefit, in terms of the headaches, and the red tape, and the other things that you have to go through and the negative aspects of being labeled a school in need of improvement or a failing school."

"What I think everybody wants is some real conversation with the federal government about a reasonable implementation process," Liverman says. "No one argues that we should be digging into the demographics and making sure that we don't leave any child behind, but when you're talking about special needs students, they wouldn't be special needs students if they were capable of meeting every expectation of regular ed students within the same time frame."

"What I really want is some kind of fair and reasonable accountability system," he says.

— Carol Chmelynski
A few districts are choosing to opt out of NCLB
School Board News


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