State Weighs Costs of Education Law
Starting in July, the Poquoson school system plans to spend $165,000 in state and local money to better train its staff and gather test scores, among other activities, to meet federal regulations under the education law known as No Child Left Behind Act.
In Isle of Wight County, the school system's upcoming budget includes hiring 20 special education teachers and assistants with $271,000 in state and local funds.
Officials need the teachers - who must now be certified in the subjects they teach under the act - to assist special education students in reaching federal standards. The U.S. Department of Education tells schools they can no longer afford to let any student fail. Meanwhile, several states, including Virginia, have added up how much it's costing to get students learning at a level that pleases federal officials.
Tying dollar amounts to efforts may give states the evidence to confirm what many have thought since President Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law three years ago - the government hasn't given them enough money to make the law worth following.
Depending upon how many local dollars go into making No Child Left Behind work, Virginia may decide to walk away from the federal law.
It's a move that could put the state at risk of losing about $340 million in federal money it receives each year to educate poor children.
"Would we be better off simply telling the federal government to drop dead and not accept the federal money?" asked James H. Dillard, a Republican delegate in the General Assembly who represents part of Fairfax county. It's a question he hopes an ongoing cost project can answer.
"The federal government doesn't come anywhere near funding it," Dillard said. He has long opposed the law, calling it a vague directive that gives federal officials unconstitutional authority over the schools.
No Child Left Behind allows states to use their own academic accountability programs to measure the annual progress of students in reading and math. The law expects states to raise the scores of all students and those in subgroups, including minorities, the disabled, those for whom English is a second language and poor students.
By 2014, federal rules require all students, regardless of race or background, to pass reading and math tests.
Virginia Gov. Mark Warner last month signed into law a bill that supports the Board of Education's January move to seek 12 exemptions from meeting the law's requirement. So far, the U.S. Department of Education has approved one exemption. It rejected another exemption last week. The state law also asks the board to calculate state and local expenses tied to meeting federal regulations.
By October, state legislators should know how much adhering to No Child Left Behind depletes state and local coffers. That's because Virginia has joined 10 other states in a project organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers.
The Council is a non-profit, non-partisan organization run by various state education department officials. For more than a year, participating states have provided an independent consulting firm information on staff pay and duties performed to meet No Child Left Behind obligations. The consulting firm - Augenblick, Palaich and Associates - has been feeding the information into software that can calculate and generate reports for each state that legislators and other state officials can review, said Sue Merritt, a consultant with the Council.
Robert Palaich, senior partner at Augenblick, Palaich, said the software calculations do not include the annual federal revenue that states receive.
Merritt declined to name the other states involved in the project, but Connecticut has already publicly released its report. New Mexico is expected to follow soon. Connecticut has taken steps to sue the federal government, saying that the law is illegal and unconstitutional. Other states that have filed legal challenges or introduced bills against the law include Minnesota, Texas, Illinois and Utah.
Responding to Connecticut's threat of a suit, the U.S. Department of Education posted a statement on its Web site earlier this month. It wrote that "the basis for the state's lawsuit appears to rest on a flawed 'cost study' of the No Child Left Behind Act that creates inflated projections built upon questionable estimates and (a) misallocation of costs."
Merritt said the firm's methods for getting information are direct, fair and accurate.
"We're not just grabbing figures out of the air," she said. "It's as precise as possible."
COST PER STUDENT
Various statistical models used by states to pinpoint administrative costs related to No Child Left Behind show that on average, the federal law costs them 2 percent of their aggregate public education budgets per year, said David Shreve, senior committee director with the National Conference of State Legislatures. Shreve discussed his organization's findings with the Virginia House of Delegates committee on education in November.
That 2 percent represents about $200 more in state funding per student each year. States are receiving annual increases of about 2 percent in federal funding to raise student achievement under No Child Behind, Shreve said in March. That means they are probably breaking even.
DEBATE OVER FUNDING
According to Dillard, localities are paying the bulk of No Child Left Behind expenses. Windsor Elementary School special education teacher LeAnn Bennett doesn't track the details of the ongoing debate over No Child Left Behind funding, but she knows the Isle of Wight board of supervisors are dealing with how to pay for the school system's request for more special education staffing.
Getting more teachers and assistants is critical to helping her students reach federal goals once they begin testing in third grade, Bennett said.
Without the money to hire more special education staff, "We can't succeed to the level of excellence that we want to succeed at and that the federal government wants," she said.
Republican leaders in the General Assembly and Congress generally agree that No Child Left Behind threatens to override the way Virginia has been educating its children since the late 1990s with the Standards of Learning.
Whether that threat - and more importantly the costs - will prompt the state to give up federal funds will be a main topic of discussion once legislators get the report from Augenblick, Palaich and Associates.
For their part, Dillard and Congresswoman JoAnn Davis, a Republican who represents a district that runs from Newport News to north of Fredericksburg, say they are ready to cut the federal purse strings.
"I don't think it would hurt Virginia that much to opt out of No Child Left Behind," Davis said. "I think education belongs back closer to home to the states and localities. ... because nobody knows education better."
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