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Kansas could join list of states challenging No Child Left Behind

by John Milburn

TOPEKA, Kan. - President Bush and Congress pushed education reforms in 2001 with passage of the No Child Left Behind Act. Three years after the law was signed, states are beginning to push back.

Kansas could be next.

Viewed as an unfunded, unrealistic goal, state officials say the act is a lawsuit waiting to happen. As more schools fall short of achievement goals for math and reading, more parents and administrators will challenge states, not the federal government, to increase spending to boost test scores.

Kansas is in the throes of a lawsuit filed before No Child Left Behind was passed. That lawsuit has cost the state $290 million and the total could go higher. No one knows what complying with NCLB will cost.

"There's probably not enough money in the state of Kansas to attain 100 percent proficiency," said Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood.

Vratil was part of a national legislative task force that looked at the effects of No Child Left Behind. The group concluded that, while laudable, the goal was unrealistic for student achievement. In addition, the task force argued that the law stymies states like Kansas that have been on the forefront of academic reforms.

Kansas launched its reforms in 1992 with passage of a new school finance formula. The system revamped the way schools were accredited, judging schools on the continuous improvement of their students. Steve Abrams, chairman of the State Board of Education, said changes pushed Kansas ahead of other states.

Abrams said Kansas students consistently score well compared to peers on national exams.

"I would guess 98 percent of it is because of what we have been doing for the past 10 years," said Abrams, of Arkansas City.

But the federal law doesn't recognize those accomplishments and grants states that are making progress little flexibility.

Vratil and Attorney General Phill Kline urged the board to consider changing its treatment of the federal goals as they relate to state accreditation standards. They asked the board to make 100 percent proficiency a goal, easing pressure to meet the 2014 deadline and giving state policy-makers more flexibility over spending decisions.

The national task force also recommends tweaking the law, including recognizing that a one-size-fits-all approach is flawed.

Abrams said some people wrongly view Vratil and Kline's comments to be advocating lowering the expectations.

"That's not what we are saying. I don't know anyone who wants to eliminate the standards," said Abrams, adding he wasn't sure what action, if any, the state board will take when it discusses the issue in October.

Abrams said it was easier now to move toward the 100 percent goal because test scores have a way to go. But reaching those final percentage points in the later years will be difficult. He believes it's unfair to call a school that is at 90 percent proficient or higher "failing" when students are clearly learning.

"But is 60 percent proficiency something to be proud of? Probably not. But we are making improvement and ahead of other states," Abrams said.

The federal goals and the state's accreditation process aren't tied directly, said State Board member Sue Gamble of Shawnee. Failure to make annual progress toward 100 percent proficiency alone can't cause a Kansas school to lose accreditation. But Gamble said failure over time to meet yearly goals could force the state to sanction schools and perhaps take them over.

"We have really tried to look at this like it might never change and by 2014 we would be held accountable some way," Gamble said. "Our point is that if we are making a good faith effort to reach the standard then we will be in the best position to negotiate with the feds when we don't because we know, statistically, we can't."

David Shreve, policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said states are seeking flexibility. Utah passed a law saying that when state and federal laws conflict, the state law prevails in determining if schools are meeting the standard. Shreve said Utah isn't out of compliance currently with federal goals, but is on that path.

Connecticut is considering litigation challenging the law as an unfunded mandate that will cost an estimated $440 million by 2008 for additional testing. Officials argue the state is making reforms and additional testing wouldn't be useful.

Texas took a different approach. After being denied flexibility in counting special education students toward test goals, the state decided it would exempt all those students. That move was denied by Washington, but Texas eventually negotiated to exempt 50 percent of the students.

"They are looking at legislative action or litigation in order to take the heat off them, to make sense of a nonsensical law," Shreve said.

Shreve said the federal law overstates failure to meet achievement goals and will become the basis for lawsuits, such as the one facing Kansas.

"NCLB sets those targets higher and higher and makes an argument for an inadequately funded system. The court assumes the state has set reasonable standards that should be reached," Shreve said.

— John Milburn, Associated Press
Kansas City Star


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