Virginia School Officials Decry NCLB Intrusion
Area school officials said the Virginia House of Delegates was half-right when it called the federal No Child Left Behind law intrusive and expensive and asked that the state be exempt.
Educators said that their objection to the law is over being told how to determine whether their students, and their schools, are performing well, and that they are less concerned about the expenses involved -- mainly the costs of the intricate record-keeping the law requires for tracking the test scores of several ethnic and economic groups of students.
"Our big beef has been less about the money and more about intrusive new rules," Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said. "We want to protect the good job we have been doing for accountability in Virginia."
U.S. Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige, in a letter sent Thursday to Virginia legislators, said they are entitled to ignore the law as long as they also forfeit all federal education funds, most of which support programs for disadvantaged students.
"Of course, if any state does not choose to pursue the goals of [No Child Left Behind] of raising the academic performance of all children and closing the achievement gap [between whites and minorities], the state may elect not to take the money," Paige said.
But Virginia, which has been honing its Standards of Learning tests since 1998, has argued that it has been pursuing those goals in its own way, with excellent results. This month, delegates voted 98 to 1 for a resolution asking Congress to exempt states from the No Child Left Behind act if the states already have rigorous standards and testing programs.
The resolution said that the law "represents one of the most sweeping intrusions into state and local control of education in the history of the United States" and that it will cost "literally millions of dollars that Virginia does not have."
Many Washington area educators agreed with the first statement, but not with the second.
Pyle said the department will spend $7.7 million in the next two years -- about 4 percent of its total spending -- to modernize computers to track the required data. The federal government will pay $4.5 million of the computer system costs.
Schools officials in the District and Maryland said they do not know yet how much more money they will have to spend -- beyond federal funding -- for technology and programs needed to comply with the No Child Left Behind act. But a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education said educators there consider the expenditures useful in helping children learn, regardless of the federal law.
Some local educators, though, said they are footing more of the bill than is apparent.
Kathleen F. Grove, assistant superintendent for instruction in Arlington County, said that the county has budgeted $500,000 -- about 0.2 percent of its total education spending -- for No Child Left Behind, but that hidden costs are involved. Many staff members, she said, "are spending large proportions of their time reading and analyzing the regulations to ensure that we will implement them correctly."
And some educators said the expense isn't worth it. "There are far better ways for many of us to spend our time than trying to meet arbitrary standards that are not really standards at all," said Edgar B. Hatrick III, school superintendent in Loudoun County, adding that about half of 1 percent of his 2004 budget supports No Child Left Behind.
George Towery, principal of Cameron Elementary School in Fairfax County, said that "many of the No Child Left Behind requirements are not realistic in the first place." He cited the goal of academic proficiency for all students by 2014.
One of the resolution's signers, Del. Kristen J. Amundson (D-Fairfax), acknowledged that her main concern was not spending, but rather the part of the law that requires states to test immigrant children and students with severe learning disabilities before they are ready to be tested.
Given those concerns, one of the authors of No Child Left Behind, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said Virginia could opt out of the law -- at its peril. In an op-ed piece in Thursday's Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, Boehner said the state has every right to ignore the more stringent testing and reporting provisions of the law, "presuming Virginia lawmakers are also willing to hand back the massive increase in federal aid the state is receiving" under the law.
Boehner said Virginia officials are sitting on $169.9 million in unspent federal funds to help pay for programs that will help them achieve the goals of No Child Left Behind. Pyle said that Virginia officials weren't sitting on the money, but rather that they are using it at a pace allowed by the law.
Thomas M. Jackson Jr., president of the Virginia Board of Education, said last week that he had not seen Paige's letter, though he made clear that all federal funding would be at risk. Jackson said Virginia receives too much in federal funds to make turning down the money a practical possibility.
Some local educators said they were even less impressed with the House resolution than with the federal law. Gregory Croghan, principal of Edison High School in Fairfax County, said he thought it was ironic for Virginia legislators to complain about the federal government imposing more education costs when the same legislature "has never provided significant funding" to support Virginia's own Standards of Learning testing system.
Eric J. Smith, school superintendent in Anne Arundel County, said that "we can argue about the money needed and whose budget is responsible, but it is a waste of all of our time to argue about whether or not we should achieve the No Child Left Behind goals. It is evident, since the No Child Left Behind goals have not been achieved by any state or district, that it is not enough for states to simply have good standards and testing programs."
Jay Mathews and Rosalind S. Helderman
Educators Decry Law's Intrusion, Not Its Cost
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES