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NCLB Outrages

California Valley divided over No Child Left Behind

Government red tape makes it difficult to 'just say no' to NCLB.

By Peter Jamison

If one thing was clear at the community meeting hosted Tuesday night by the Lagunitas School District, it was that parents, teachers, and school board trustees are still far from agreeing with one another on whether the district should opt out of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, thus forgoing an annual $44,000 in school funding.

The meeting was planned to gauge opinions in the San Geronimo Valley on how best to meet the challenges posed by No Child Left Behind. For the past two years, the district has failed to meet the act’s requirements because of inadequate student participation in standardized tests.

As a result, it has been branded a failing school district. Now in its first year of noncompliance with federal standards, the district must set aside money for teacher training and offer to bus students to better-performing schools. In the fifth year of noncompliance, after progressively harsher punishments, it could face takeover by the state.

To avoid that fate, a faction of school board trustees began arguing last fall, the district should opt out of No Child Left Behind by refusing to accept the government funding attached to the legislation. Their cause was given prominent coverage in local news media – in print and on television – which tended to portray the district’s families as a united group, prepared to stand on principle against interference from Washington.

A different picture emerged Tuesday night. Among the 60 parents, board trustees, teachers, and school administrators who turned out at the Lagunitas School, views still vary widely on just what the district’s relationship to federal education standards should be. Only two of the district’s five trustees are at present willing to opt out of No Child Left Behind.

"This is causing divisiveness at every level – in people’s own families, within the school, within the community," said San Geronimo Valley Community Center director Dave Cort, summarizing a group discussion he moderated at one point during the evening.

‘We risk being homogenized’

On one side are those – led by school board trustees Stephanie O’Brien and Richard Sloan – who believe that the district should exempt itself from the requirements of No Child Left Behind by giving up Title 1 funding, which the federal government now grants only on condition that schools comply with the legislation. That would amount to about $44,000, or less than two percent of the district’s annual budget, they say.

O’Brien said that the legislation’s one-size-fits-all method of measuring student performance through standardized tests is ill-suited to the progressive school district, which has three alternative schooling tracks – Open Classroom, Montessori, and Waldorf-inspired – but no mainstream program.

"This is a radically diverse community, and we stand to risk being homogenized," O’Brien said.

A more practical consideration, O’Brien said, is the low probability of the district’s complying with the act, even if it seeks to do so. Families cannot be forced to submit to the state’s weeklong Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) exams, although failure to do so leads to sanctions under No Child Left Behind. The act requires that 95 percent of the district’s students take the tests; last year, only 70 percent did so.

"No matter what we do, we’re not going to be able to comply," O’Brien said. To avoid sanctions, the argument goes, best to opt out of the legislation entirely by dropping Title 1 funding.

‘Strings we can live with’

It remains unclear whether escaping the requirements of No Child Left Behind will be that simple. The law was passed in 2002, and school districts across the country have only begun to deal with its more severe provisions. The consequences for a small school district of dropping government funding and not participating in the legislation have not been demonstrated. The Lagunitas School District, like many other noncompliant school districts across the state and country, is in unknown territory.

But for some in the Valley, the immediate consequences of opting out of No Child Left Behind pose a more concrete threat than the prospect, still years away, of government intervention.

"I don’t think, once we look at all the information, that opting out of the money is going to be the best thing to do," said trustee Denise Bohman. "It has strings attached, but they’re strings we can live with."

Bohman noted that other sources of district funding are calculated annually using Title 1 funds. Giving up the money, she said, could cause a ripple effect that risks decreasing funding for an already cash-strapped district (Lagunitas School District has for years ranked as one of Marin’s poorest school districts, and its teachers are the lowest-paid in the county).

The Title 1 funds, though a small percentage of the annual district budget, are in themselves important, Bohman said. The funds are used to hire a reading specialist who works one-on-one with students, pay teachers’ aides, and buy extra books. A former district trustee said that Title 1 money most helps those students whose academic performance is lagging but who do not qualify for special education.

Trustee Kelly O’Connor said that he would like to find a "middle path" between rejecting the funding outright and submitting totally to the standardized-testing regime that No Child Left Behind imposes. Along with Bohman and trustee Susi Giacomini, O’Connor said he isn’t ready to opt out of the legislation yet.

Test dogma

"I think that what has happened, particularly in our district, is that people have accepted the dogma that all testing is terrible," said Woodacre resident Karen Koenig, whose daughter attended the Lagunitas School’s Montessori program until the 5th grade and is now at White Hill Middle School in Fairfax. Koenig, an English professor at College of Marin, said that she hadn’t observed undue stress in her own children when they have taken STAR tests.

Fears of superficial "teaching to the test" occupying larger parts of the curriculum are unfounded, she added. "Teaching to a standard while also inspiring your students is exactly the challenge and the joy of teaching," she said. During her first teaching job preparing adults and teenage high-school dropouts for the GED High School Equivalency Diploma Test, she said, her students were inspired to read entire plays by Shakespeare after studying for critical-reading passages on the exam.

Independent minds

Community Center director Cort sees things differently. Cort’s own children were both special ed students in the Lagunitas School District; his son could not read easily until the 5th grade. The latitude this school district grants its students in pursuing an education tailored to their needs turned both his children into successful and happy learners, he said.

"The fact that he was in this district that is really an individual, special district allowed him to develop at his own pace," Cort said. "And sure enough, it panned out." Cort’s son is now studying to be a teacher at Dominican University in San Rafael.

It is this tradition of individualized education, Cort said, that is threatened by compulsory standardized testing. During the STAR tests, he noted, classrooms where parents are usually encouraged to come and go, sharing in their children’s education under the rules of the Open Classroom program, are cordoned off for a full week of standardized testing. During that time, he said, the campus feels like another school.

"I believe in assessment," Cort said. "My kids have had more assessment than anyone else in this district because they’re special ed. But everything is geared to them. Gifted kids, special ed kids, kids in the middle – they all deserve individualized educations. The overriding thing this district is all about is choice."

Nationwide backlash

The Lagunitas School District is not alone in chafing under No Child Left Behind. In fact, few pieces of federal legislation in recent history have provoked a greater backlash at the state and local level. Connecticut filed a lawsuit against the federal government over the act last summer, and Utah passed a law giving its own education standards precedence over the national standards, despite the government’s threat to withhold $76 million in funding.

Bills critical of No Child Left Behind have been considered by 21 states, according to The Civil Society Institute, a nonprofit think tank, and 15 states have considered bills to opt out of the legislation. To date, only three states have not taken measures to challenge the law.

In California, some education officials expect No Child Left Behind to falter in the next decade because of the enormous number of schools that could fail to comply, making government intervention impossible to carry out. Trustee O’Brien said that more than 90 percent of schools in the state are currently earmarked for reforms because of noncompliance, quoting statistics from the California School Boards Association.

Such is the backdrop against which parents and trustees of the Lagunitas School District are struggling to come to terms with Washington’s interference in their historically innovative and independent school system. Another community meeting on No Child Left Behind will be held a month from now. But divisions within the community over the right course of action could be difficult to breach, O’Brien said.

"Regardless of what decision we make, somebody’s going to be upset," she said. "The federal government has put us in a lose-lose position."

— Peter Jamison
Point Reyes Light


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