Legislators join battle over federal education law: More state lawmakers say that the No Child Left Behind Act isn't fair to Virginia schools.
by Angela Forest
The tug-of-war between the state and the federal governments over No Child Left Behind just got an extra pull, in the form of seven state legislators who want immediate answers to whether Virginia can be exempt from parts of the federal law.
Led by Del. Steven Landes and Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, the politicians sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings on Wednesday. The letter expresses "disappointment that the Department has still not responded to four additional requests, including one that would prevent hundreds of good Virginia schools from being inaccurately labeled 'failures' by the federal government."
Landes and Whipple said their goal is to prompt the federal government to tell schools before the start of classes in September what to expect from the law. Whipple is a Democrat from Arlington. A Republican, Landes is from Weyers Cave, south of Harrisonburg. Among the other legislators signing the letter was Sen. Russell Potts, R-Winchester, who is running for governor as an independent.
"We are anxious to hear from them. It's been seven months since the state board made these requests," Whipple said. "While a few have been answered, others have not."
State education department spokeswoman Julie Grimes said if the U.S. Department of Education approved even some of the waivers within the next few weeks, it could determine whether schools meet federal academic targets based on the most recent Virginia Standards of Learning scores.
Signed into law in 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act uses each state's accountability programs - such as the SOLs - to measure how well students perform annually in reading and math.
In addition, the law expects students in subgroups, such as minorities, the poor, those with limited English skills and the disabled to score as well as the average score at a particular grade level.
Schools getting federal money to educate poor students that fail to reach federal pass rates for two consecutive years must let all students transfer to schools that do.
These schools may also face other sanctions if they don't improve after two years.
Over several months, the State Board of Education has sought 14 requests for exemptions from the law. The federal Department of Education has approved five and rejected five. State education officials said they got verbal approval Tuesday for another request to lower annual federal pass rates for 2004-05 from 70 percent to 63 percent in math and 65 percent in reading, Grimes said.
The state is still waiting on three other requests: to keep students with limited English from being counted toward federal goals for three years; allow schools that miss goals to tutor students before letting them transfer and establish different pass rates for students who fall into one or more subgroups.
The push led by Landes and Whipple is part of a growing resistance within Virginia and among other states to what critics say is the federal law's inflexibility, lack of full funding and unrealistic expectations.
In October, state legislators expect to receive a report on how much No Child Left Behind costs Virginia localities. Depending on the results, it could spur the General Assembly to endorse giving up federal funding to escape the law.
And in April, U.S. Sen. George Allen, R-Va. and Rep. Bob Goodlatte introduced a bill in Congress that would exclude Virginia and other states with well-established academic accountability programs from following yearly growth mandates under No Child Left Behind.
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