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Do U. S. School Reform Costs Add Up?

Ask school finance expert William Mathis what the federal No Child Left Behind law will cost the states, and he will tell you a story.

Imagine, Mathis says, that you are a business owner thinking about signing a contract with the federal government.

Your accountants tell you that if you enter into the deal, it will require expenditures about 10 times higher than the revenue you will receive.

Now imagine that the product you will produce will require 100 percent accuracy, but you cannot control the variables affecting production.

Finally, your research and planning department brings you studies that show no one knows how to accomplish the task to which you have been assigned.

Still feel like signing?

A growing number of state legislatures these days feel as squeezed as that hypothetical business owner. Lawmakers in Virginia, Utah and seven other states are either trying to opt out of No Child Left Behind or are refusing to use state funds to pay for the law.

Two years after President Bush signed the act, many lawmakers and educators still strongly support its basic tenets, such as 100 percent reading and math proficiency for every child by 2014 and a qualified teacher in every classroom.

But even true believers suffer from sticker shock over what that will cost.

Local school districts, most forced to seek property tax hikes from voters just to make ends meet, say they can ill afford the additional responsibilities the law gives them.

"Everybody agrees with the concept, but it certainly is a law that requires additional time and effort in already cash-strapped school districts," said Brecksville- Broadview Heights Superintendent Stephen Farnsworth.

"These kinds of additional burdens really impact us."

A recently released Ohio study - the most comprehensive cost study a state has attempted - found that by 2010, it will take about $1.5 billion annually to get all children working at grade level in reading and math. That's a long way from the $44 million the study said Ohio received in federal education money last year.

The analysis said most of the cost, $1.38 billion, comes from after-school and summer tutoring needed to help students pass the required achievement tests. Teacher training and other administrative costs are estimated at $105 million a year.

Mathis, the superintendent of a Vermont district and an education finance professor at the University of Vermont, said the $1.5 billion cited in the Ohio study is actually a low estimate.

"It is an inescapable conclusion that No Child Left Behind is severely underfunded," he said.

That conclusion is supported by a study by the American Federation of Teachers that found large gaps between what states need to pay for No Child Left Behind and what Bush's 2005 budget would give them. In Ohio, the gap stood at $242 million in Title 1 money, which is used for math and reading tutoring for disadvantaged students

But the Ohio study, drafted by a Columbus-based consulting firm for $40,000, has plenty of critics. None is louder than U.S. Rep. John Boehner, the West Chester Republican who chairs the House Education Committee and served as the principle writer of the law.

In a sharply worded statement, Boehner said the study both exaggerates the cost and understates Ohio's federal aid by $990 million because it failed to include grants for disabled students and other money Washington has been giving Ohio all along.

"If Ohio is receiving only $44 million from the federal government to implement No Child Left Behind, then we should launch an investigation immediately to figure out what's being done with the remaining $990 million," said Boehner.

Boehner is not alone. A report issued last month by the Education Leaders Council, a think tank devoted to education reform, found that the level of funding for No Child Left Behind "has been - and is likely to remain - sufficient."

That mirrored a study last year by the General Accounting Office that concluded Congress was spending a sufficient amount of money to help states meet the law's mandates.

Of the 10 independent school- funding experts Ohio sought to review its study, two thought the estimate was on target and two said it was too low.

Three of those experts, however, believed that the cost was overestimated and another three believed the study made too many assumptions to get an accurate estimate.

Just last week, Chester Finn Jr., an education undersecretary under former President Ronald Reagan, blasted the Ohio study as "snake oil."

State Board of Education member Deborah Owens Fink of Peninsula said she is glad Ohio conducted the study but believes the cost estimate is probably too high.

She said the study does not contemplate factors that could improve student achievement, such as better teaching methods or students getting more comfortable with the tests.

"The biggest cost is remediation, and one has to remediate only if one has not done all one can do up front," Owens Fink said.

Supporters of the study believe it provides, at the minimum, an important starting point for a discussion about what the real price tag is for student success.

State Sen. C.J. Prentiss pushed to make sure the study estimated the cost of bringing all of the state's 1.8 million public school students up to speed in reading and math.

Cost estimates in other states have been limited to the price of testing and teacher training.

"We've got a goal here - we've got 12 years to get all students to perform at grade level," the Cleveland Democrat said. "I wanted to know what it takes to get there. So now, at least we have a study that gives us a benchmark, whether you agree or disagree with it."

Prentiss believes the $1.5 billion figure is low because the study worked on the flawed assumption that Ohio is already meeting its own target of having 75 percent of students pass achievement tests.

Since only 55 to 65 percent are passing, the study didn't give a true picture of how far the state has to go to reach 100 percent proficiency, she said.

"Getting them to grade level means more time on task and that means more teachers dealing with kids and that means more money," Prentiss said. "It's underfunded. Let's admit that and move on."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

sstephens@plaind.com, 216-999-4827

2004 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.

Copyright 2004 cleveland.com. All Rights Reserved.

— Scott Stephens
Plain Dealer


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