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NCLB Outrages

Schools: Mandate or Not?

Ohanian Comment: This comment is so outrageous, we can only hope that the superintendent was misquoted: "You look at the resources you have in your building," Chase said. "Cooks, librarian." you don't have to be a certified teacher to help with students like this." [meaning special ed]

Three years after the Bush administration introduced No Child Left Behind and 30 years after the federal government promised special education funding, financial judgment day gets nearer.

In Marion, the school district eliminated a half-time special education position and para-professional aides as part of its budget cutting. It plans to use other school personnel to help meet all its students' needs.

In Cadillac, mandates have changed when the school district provides classes and in Manton, the superintendent wonders about mandated teacher training that does not include funding.

Michigan Association of School Board Executive Director Justin King said he does not see any help coming from legislators.

"There's a lot of empathy and sympathy from them," he said, "but the trouble is there isn't anybody that has the guts to advocate for increased revenue, which means increased taxes."

In Connecticut the attorney general plans to sue the Bush administration for unfunded mandates.

Michigan's Pontiac school district already has, along with districts from Texas, Vermont and the National Education Association.

No Child Left Behind, MEAP, special education and other requirements for school districts often cost more than the dollars and grants provided by the federal and state governments, educators say.

The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act requires that every child achieve grade level proficiency by 2013 and holds school systems accountable by testing in grades three to eight and 10 to 12 to see if children are learning. School districts that want federal funds must meet the standards.

In Michigan, a coalition of educational groups called K-16 Coalition for Michigan's Future has formed to lobby legislators for more dollars for public education.

Nationally the NEA says it has drawn a line in the sand with its lawsuit.

"Today we're standing up for children, whose parents are saying, 'No more' to costly federal regulations that drain money from classrooms and spend it on paperwork, bureaucracy and big testing companies," said NEA President Reg Weaver. "The principle of the law is simple; if you regulate, you have to pay."

At Marion Public Schools, dropping enrollment, higher costs and under funded mandates put the district in a precarious position, according to its superintendent.

Superintendent Charles Chase said special education requirements from the state routinely have been under funded.

"Mandated programs have not kept up with costs," Chase said. He said the district spends "well over $100,000 every years to support the cost of special education programs."

Marion's 2004-05 budget showed $214,867 in state aid and budgeted expenses of $405,180.

Chase said the strategy for 2005-06 school year in the cash-strapped district is to lay off a half-time special education teacher and use creative ways to help students struggling with school or problems that affect their school performance.

"You look at the resources you have in your building," Chase said. "Cooks, librarian you don't have to be a certified teacher to help with students like this."

Chase envisions cooks and custodians possibly being assigned to help a student for a certain time of the day with reading or working.

"You're trying to better meet the needs of kids," he said. "We're into blurring the lines. We're trying to meet their needs."

In Evart, the district's special education programs services 152 students. In 2004, special education teacher salaries totaled $484,008. The overall total for special education, including salaries for aides, fringe benefits for teachers and aides, supplies, contracted services, books and equipment, was $901,558.

The cost of compensatory education focusing on Evart students at risk totaled $569,893. That figure includes teacher, nurse, counselor, clerical, aide, police liaison and coordinator salaries and benefits, supplies, workshops, and other expenses.

Special education demands create big costs for districts, said Justin King, executive director for the Michigan Association of School Boards.

"The Education of All Handicapped Children Act passed in the 1970s. The promise at the time was that the federal government would fund 40 percent of the costs," King said. "The highest they've ever done is 18 percent. The rest comes out of local coffers."

King said lobbying efforts with state and national legislators has yet to yield a remedy.

"There's a lot of empathy and sympathy from them," he said, "but the trouble is there isn't anybody that has the guts to advocate for increased revenue, which means increased taxes."

In Cadillac, Assistant Superintendent Patrick Briggs said the district is driven by mandates.

"There are so many mandates. No Child Left Behind is a newer mandate," he said. "You could call the whole state curriculum a mandate. The MEAP tests drives our curriculum."

The MEAP has changed when classes are taught and the order that they are taught throughout the district.

"We teach classes out of the natural order of learning," he said.

A big mandate for the district came when Proposal A was passed in the 1990s. Briggs said prior to that, the state picked up most of teacher retirement costs. Now the district must pay those costs.

With No Child Left Behind, Briggs said there is a bipartisan effort in Washington to upgrade public schools and standards. Problems arise when districts in Michigan are compared with districts in other states.

"We know the schools in other states the test they use to measure annual yearly progress is not as rigorous," Briggs said.

One way schools and associated groups are responding is through the K-16 Coalition. The group consists of teachers, school boards, school administrative groups and others that are lobbying for school funding

Briggs said the group is trying to start at the local level to bring about changes.

"One of their first tasks is to get everyone involved in a grassroots effort," Briggs said. "K-16 is really trying to raise awareness, that is their primary goal."

The K-16 Web site includes an action kit advising members how to lobby and communicate about school needs in the era of perceived mandates. A state rally regarding public school funding is set for June 21 at the Capitol.

In Manton, Superintendent Lon Schneider said professional development is a mandatory program for which schools get no funding. Teachers have a required five professional days per year. For new teachers, 15 days are required in the first three years in addition to the regular five days per annum.

Costs associated with training are many - hiring a substitute teacher, travel and cost of training, which is not cheap by any means. The professional days are funded through per-pupil funding.

Other mandatory programs are special education, sex education and Title I programs, for which a school district receives federal dollars.

Staff writers Sally Barber and Matt Whetstone contributed to this story.

— Dale Killingbeck
Cadillac News


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