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No Child Left Behind Act Draws Fire from States, Districts

Ohanian Comment: As the reporter notes, most resistance to NCLB is short on substance, very short.

An increasing number of districts and schools are considering defying the federal No Child Left Behind Act, after grumbling about it since its passage in 2001.

A few school districts have decided they would rather give up federal money than put up with the law's penalties.

In Dongola, Ill., in deep Southern Illinois, for example, Superintendent William Mauser was ready to give up the $16,000 in federal money the tiny district receives. The district's high school, with just 87 students, showed up on a list of "failing" schools, after 11th-graders fell short of annual goals on state tests.

Under No Child Left Behind, all of the students in the school in the hilly town of 800 would be allowed to transfer to another district. A handful of students turned in transfer applications, and Mauser began negotiating the transfer terms with the Anna-Jonesboro high school, about 10 miles away.

He found the cost of transportation and tuition that Dongola would have had to pay - a little more than $200,000 - would have been many times more than the $16,000 it receives in federal money. For a district already in deficit spending, it didn't make sense to stay in the program, Mauser said.

He was ready to pull Dongola's application for federal dollars. By not taking the money, Dongola still would have had to test its students and meet state requirements, but it wouldn't have had to offer transfers or tutoring if its students didn't meet state testing goals.

The transfer deal fell through when an agreement couldn't be reached with Anna-Jonesboro, so the students - and the money - remained in Dongola.

"By allowing transfers (to other districts) and then not telling us how we're supposed to fund this, No Child Left Behind is an anomaly that is impossible to deal with," Mauser said last week. Federal education officials will hear that complaint and others when they travel to St. Louis this week for a national summit on the No Child Left Behind Act. One of the sessions scheduled each of the three days invites attendees to "bring your own problems."

Education Secretary Rod Paige will deliver the keynote speech on Wednesday.

Mauser is not alone in his frustration with the law. Several school districts in Vermont and Connecticut have withdrawn from No Child Left Behind, forsaking their federal dollars.

In addition, 20 state legislatures have responded to the federal law with resolutions and bills protesting what many view as an intrusion on states' rights. Neither Missouri nor Illinois have introduced such measures.

"Times are tough, and it is hard to turn a back on funding," said John R. Lawrence, superintendent of the Troy (Mo.) School District and president of the American Association of School Administrators. Still, Lawrence added, the cost of sanctions against districts unable to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind could run eight to nine times the amount of recent federal increases in education spending.

And the situation could worsen. Each year, more and more students must meet state improvement goals on standardized tests until by 2014, all students must be proficient in reading and math.

While local educators don't object to the idea of students raising their test scores, they wonder whether all students can meet that ultimate goal.

Four states - Utah, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire - introduced legislation that would bar districts from spending state dollars to enforce No Child Left Behind's requirements.

Most of the state resolutions, however, are short on substance; they merely declare that their states should be exempt but should not lose federal funding.

While federal dollars account for only 7 percent to 11 percent of the $400 billion spent on U.S. schools each year, those dollars are still crucial for many schools. Districts in Illinois receive more than $800 million in federal Title I money, targeted at poor children.

Jim Rosborg, superintendent of Belleville elementary schools, receives about $1 million from Title I. Rosborg said he couldn't give up that kind of money without hurting education in the district.

But he said he wouldn't be surprised if the number of districts rejecting federal money in exchange for exemption from No Child Left Behind continues to increase as the number of students expected to meet state standards increases in the coming years.

"Until some sort of sanity is restored, certainly more districts will be faced with these kinds of choices," Rosborg said.

Carolyn Bower of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

Reporter Alexa Aguilar
E-mail: aaguilar@post-dispatch.com

— Alexa Aguilar
'No Child Left Behind' act draws fire from states, districts


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