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No Child Act Divides Parents, Educators: Some Want to Join Lawsuit; Others Say Law's Not Broken

Anna-Maria Wilson's voice cracked while speaking about the No Child Left Behind Act during a family event this week at Nisqually Middle School.

President Bush's education law has schools diverting money from important elective courses such as home economics to pay for unfunded mandates, said Wilson, Indian education director for North Thurston Public Schools.

"Kids cannot survive in high school, let alone the real world, without life skills," she added, near tears.

The National Education Association and nine school districts in Michigan, Texas and Vermont filed a lawsuit Wednesday asking a federal judge to exempt school districts from any mandates in No Child Left Behind that aren't funded by the government. No Child Left Behind requires schools to spend $27 billion more than Congress has allocated, the suit states.

Area teachers' unions are represented in the suit, as the Washington Education Association is part of the national union, but Thurston County school districts are not actively involved.

Local school board members are divided over whether a lawsuit is the best way to improve the law -- and whether it needs fixing at all.

Russ Lehman, an Olympia school board member, would like his board to consider joining the lawsuit or filing an amicus brief, which allows an entity not involved in the case to express an opinion.

"I can't see how we can look at our taxpayers in the eye and say we're not doing everything we can to maximize our budget efficiency here," he said Friday.

The Olympia School District already does most of the things Bush's education law requires, he said. The district likely will make cuts this year, in part because of the increased cost of the administrative tasks and paperwork needed to report its progress to the federal government.

"I can't see why we shouldn't join the litigation other than the possible costs of joining," he said.

The North Thurston district is facing fewer budget cuts this year than in the past few years, Superintendent Jim Koval said.

No Child Left Behind has nothing to do with possible changes in the district's elective programs, he said.

The district aims to standardize programs at all of its schools, Koval said. Decisions on which electives to retain are not based on financial restrictions, he said.

"What I've tried to really focus on is, what do we need to do here in response to our students and what their needs are," Koval said.

An ideal outcome of the lawsuit would be a major revision of the No Child Left Behind Act, Lehman said. He argues that the law overemphasizes standardized testing.

Barring an overhaul, Lehman's second choice would be for the federal government to fully fund the law.

A colleague on the board, Rich Nafziger, has a different view. No Child Left Behind's mandates to show "adequate yearly progress" are worth the price, he said.

"I would not want to take the pressure off us to get better and better," he said.

"It ultimately forces school districts to focus on kids who have had trouble keeping up," he said.

Olympia schools more than meet the requirements of the law, he said.

"Sometimes I wonder if we should raise our standards," he said.

Nafziger worries that the lawsuit will strike down No Child Left Behind.

"It would be nice if there were more federal funds," he said.

"That's not asking too much, to ask the federal government to pay for their shares of the cost," he added. "But if they don't, I want to do it anyway."

North Thurston Public Schools board Vice President Jan Peterson agreed that the education law's goals deserve attention, but said it's a challenge to fund all of them.

The school board has not discussed whether to participate in the lawsuit, and Peterson wondered whether it's really in the best interest of students.

"The overriding issue is, what can we do to maintain the focus on the kids," she said.

The district's limited resources shouldn't be spent on lawyers, North Thurston school board member Judy Wilson said. "We can't afford to be spending money on a lawsuit that we should be spending in the classroom."

And the federal government isn't the only force demanding schools' time and money, she added. The state has a number of requirements for schools, including developing a four-year plan for high school students, senior projects and an increased emphasis on health and nutrition.

"We try to use the money in the best way we can," she said.

In Tumwater, teachers don't have enough classroom assistance, but Terry VanMeter, president of the Tumwater Education Association, couldn't say whether that's a direct result of No Child Left Behind.

Still, as president of the union and an elementary school teacher, VanMeter supports the lawsuit.

No Child Left Behind is unrealistic, he said, because some students -- such as those in special education classes -- are not capable of passing the Washington Assessment of Student Learning.

If those disadvantaged students continue failing to meet standards, their schools could lose federal funding, VanMeter said.

"We want to set high standards," he said. "It's the punitive piece that comes along with it, which ultimately is taking away money."

Kari Neumeyer can be reached at 360-357-0204 or kneumeye@olympia.gannett.com.

— Kari Neumeyer


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