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Mission impossible

School compliance with federal law will take big bucks. Are LI taxpayers willing to pay?

By Jonathan Becker

'Mission Impossible III" was not a huge box office hit, but in case there's a next installment, I have a proposal for a script.

Tom Cruise's mission (should he choose to accept it) is to take on the role of a school superintendent. His challenge is to get every single student in grades 3 through 8 to pass statewide exams by the year 2014. Failure to reach intermediate goals two years in a row will result in a series of progressively punitive sanctions. Reaching full proficiency will require a huge increase in spending, but residents facing high property taxes and rising gas prices are in no mood to fork over enough to cover it all.

Does this plot seem too "Hollywood"? Well, it's the reality that school superintendents on Long Island face as they seek to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

In a year when voters in most districts passed their school budgets, this is the great untold school budget story. Complying with the federal law figures to cost the average school district in Nassau and Suffolk more than $11 million in the 10-year period 2004-2014. Are school systems really prepared for that?

Signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002, No Child Left Behind mandates statewide standards-based testing in grades 3 through 8. The ultimate goal is for every child, in every school, in every district, in every state to be proficient on statewide exams by 2014. Districts need to make what the law calls "adequate yearly progress" toward the goal of proficiency in test scores for every student. Those that fall behind are subject to sanctions, ranging from encouraging kids to transfer out of failing schools to complete organizational restructuring.

In theory, the law's goals are laudable. We should have high expectations for all children. The question is whether most school districts will have the resources to fully comply.

For the wealthiest school districts on Long Island, 100 percent proficiency on exams either has been achieved or is well within sight. But in other places it's truly an impossible mission. This is not the fault of well-intentioned, hardworking, competent educators and school leaders. It's that achieving proficiency for every student is prohibitively expensive, and the federal government has never fully funded its commitment to No Child Left Behind.

If we compare initial authorizations for funding to actual appropriations, districts are getting much less than the government estimated they would need. In 2002, the gap nationally was $3.15 billion. By 2005, it was $7.26 billion. Presumably most of the extra money would go to administering and scoring the tests and to collecting and reporting the results.

These figures don't bode well, but they also don't shed any light on what it costs to raise every student's test scores to the required standards. William J. Mathis, a regional superintendent in Vermont, reviewed a number of studies and concluded that for No Child Left Behind to be fully funded would require, on average, a 27.5 percent funding increase in each state over the 10 years covered by the law.

Federal officials and their allies assert that if schools would simply straighten out their financial houses and eliminate waste, there would be plenty of funds available. But as of last year, at least a quarter of the states had made formal protests against the federal law on the grounds that they couldn't afford to comply. In Virginia, for example, the Republican-dominated House of Delegates passed a resolution calling No Child Left Behind an unfunded mandate. Connecticut has gone so far as to challenge the federal law's constitutionality in court.

In New York, while the costs of developing the standardized tests and monitoring yearly progress are borne by the State Education Department, local school districts must pay for administering the exams and getting them scored, as well as collecting and reporting individual student, school and district results to the state. Many districts will spend extra funds - amounts will vary - providing students with extra test preparation.

What will it cost the average Long Island school district to achieve 100 percent proficiency under No Child Left Behind?

Standard & Poor's School Evaluation Service uses a measure called the Performance Cost Index, which calculates the dollars a district spends per student to gain a percentage point in proficiency in test scores. The figures for Nassau and Suffolk are quite close, so let's just take Suffolk as an example.

As of 2004 in the average Suffolk district, 76 percent of the students were scoring at proficient levels in reading and math. The Performance Cost Index estimates that it would cost such a district roughly $127 per pupil per year to raise the proficiency level by 1 percent.

No Child Left Behind requires that the district improve 24 proficiency points to reach 100 percent by 2014, adding 2.4 points per year. Multiplying the $127 by 2.4 yields $305. This is the extra amount that the district would have to pay per pupil each year to stay on pace to reach 100 percent proficiency in 10 years.

On balance, it's fair to say, in an admittedly rough calculation, that an average-size district of 3,700 students in Nassau and Suffolk faces a total extra expenditure to comply with No Child Left Behind of more than $11 million over the 10 years covered by the law.

Across Long Island, in 2004 - the base year used by Standard & Poor's - the range of additional spending required to keep pace with No Child Left Behind went from zero percent in districts such as Amagansett and Quogue that have already achieved 100 percent proficiency to a high of 11 percent in Roosevelt.

The districts with the greatest additional expenses are overwhelmingly those that serve the highest percentages of students of color in economically disadvantaged communities such as Roosevelt, Wyandanch and Hempstead.

Most districts and schools on Long Island have been making "adequate yearly progress" to this point and so probably believe that their budgeting is on pace to get to 100 percent proficiency.

But things could change dramatically very soon.

This year, for the first time, testing is required in grades 3 through 8 grade, instead of just grades 4 and 8. That is much more expensive.

Accountability rules are about to shift too. Beginning this school year, the law required that schools report test scores for subgroups, such as minorities and special education students, if there were at least 30 of these students in an entire school. Before, schools only had to report results if there were 30 or more of these students in one grade.

This means that more districts will have to compile and report subgroup results, which will take more time and effort to do, thus making compliance with the law that much more expensive overall.

So while the 2006 school budget votes are history, we need to be concerned about next year's - and the years to come.

Is No Child Left Behind creating a Mission Impossible scenario - and the school districts have no choice but to accept it - that even Tom Cruise couldn't complete?

Jonathan Becker is an assistant professor in the Department of Foundations, Leadership and Policy Studies at Hofstra University's School of Education and Allied Human Services.

— Jonathan Becker


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