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Wary Districts Shift or Forgo Federal Funds

They might not constitute a revolution, but more districts and schools are joining the list of those that have turned away federal Title I money or found other ways to avoid having to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act.

Last month, the 13,000-student Suffolk school system in Suffolk, Va., elected to sidestep sanctions from the federal law by redistributing Title I aid within its district.

And earlier in the summer, Consolidated High School District 230 in Orland Park, Ill., turned away $115,000 in Title I funds for its three high schools. "The sanctions that might come with that could cost more than what we might get from the grant," said Jim Sibley, the director of communications for the 8,000-student district.

The school board in another Illinois district is considering the same step.

In the 2003-04 school year, three school districts in Connecticut and three more in Vermont each abandoned the Title I designation for at least one school because school officials believed it wasnít cost-effective to participate or because they wanted to avoid dealing with the penalties under the sweeping federal No Child Left Behind law.

To be sure, the number of districts opting out of Title I remains a tiny minority, said Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education.

He noted in an e-mail message last week that almost all of the nationís 13,700 school districts eligible for aid under Title Ióthe largest source of federal funds for disadvantaged K-12 studentsótake that money.
The No Child Left Behind Act, the 2Ĺ-year-old law that reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, governs Title I and a host of other programs.

Under the federal law, schools that donít meet goals for adequate yearly progress in student achievement for two consecutive years must permit students to transfer to higher-performing public schools that will accept them. If schools donít meet their goals for three years in a row, their students are eligible for public or private tutoring.

Schools must meet progress goals for their students overall, as well as for subgroups of students, such as children with disabilities and those who are members of racial or ethnic minorities. ("Data Show Schools Making Progress on Federal Goals,"
this issue.)

"Some of the tougher consequences havenít hit districts yet," said Mary Fulton, a policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. "As we move along, we might see more districts opting out of the funds."


Shuffling Money

Rather than opt out altogether, some districts are finding ways to continue to receive Title I funds while avoiding sanctions at individual schools.

In Virginia, the Suffolk school board voted 6-1 to focus all of its $2.6 million in Title I aid on its elementary schools rather than continue to spend about $680,000 of the money on two of its four middle schools.

The two Title I middle schools havenít made all of their goals for adequate yearly progress, or AYP, for African-American and low-income students for two years in a row. Because of the board vote, the district avoids having to let students at the two lower-performing middle schools transfer. Such a move would have required buying portable classrooms, paying for extra transportation, and cutting half a dozen Title I teacher positions, officials say.

School board member Frances L. Alwood stressed that the middle school students will receive the same services that they did under Title I, though the services will be paid for with local funds.

Other districts believe that completely dropping out of Title I is a better option.

In Illinoisí Orland Park, a suburb of Chicago, none of the three district high schools met AYP goals for students with disabilities in the 2002-03 school year. Preliminary information released by the state shows the three high schools didnít meet AYP this past school year either.

Mr. Sibley noted that with fewer than 5 percent of the districtís 8,000 students coming from low-income families, Orland Park doesnít have many students in the population targeted by Title I funds. Students who are struggling academically already receive extra help, he added.

Orland Park could be joined by Illinoisí Evanston Township High School District 202, a one-school district in another suburb of Chicago, whose board is also considering dropping out of Title I and giving up $111,000.

The Evanston Township High School Districtís 3,100-student high school didnít meet AYP goals for low-income students and African-American students in the 2002-03 school year. Preliminary information from the state shows the district failed to meet its goals for a second consecutive year. If that turns out to be true, the district will have to permit students to transfer to schools in other districts.

Judith Levinson, the districtís director of research, evaluation, and assessment, said that working out transfer agreements with other districts could be difficult. "We believe we offer a good education,"
she said, "and would rather see our funds going to programs at our school than sending money elsewhere."

In Connecticut, three districts declined Title I money for the 2003-2004 school year, and at least one of them will continue to do so this school year.

Greg J. Florio, the superintendent of the 5,100-student Cheshire district in Connecticut, said the school board declined about $80,000 in Title I aid last year and $90,000 for this school year because it wasnít practical to create a new remedial program to use the funds.

"Those students who have need for remedial support are already getting that support," he said. In addition, he said, the district doesnít want to deal with some of the consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act should any of its schools not make adequate yearly progress.

— Mary Ann Zehr
Education Week


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