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Education Officials Push for Cost Analysis of State, Federal Mandates

HARRISBURG -- Ask any Pennsylvania education official how much it's going to cost to meet the requirements of new state mandates and the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and he'll probably give you euphemisms:

It's going to cost a boatload. Serious bread. Muchos pesos.

What he can't give you is a precise dollar figure.

In Ohio, New Hampshire, Minnesota and elsewhere, state legislatures have commissioned studies to analyze the estimated cost of meeting state and federal education mandates over the next decade to give lawmakers a starting point for any discussions about school funding.

In Pennsylvania, it's more of a guessing game, and groups like the Education Policy and Leadership Center ( http://www.eplc.org) think it's time to stop the guesswork.

"This is a significant obligation that the state and school districts are taking on," said Ron Cowell, the center's president and a former Democratic lawmaker who co-chaired the House Education Committee. "It's fair to ask: What are those costs? What's it going to take to fulfill the promise of No
Child Left Behind? We ought to get a handle on that."

A study could be the first step, he said.

In the Capitol yesterday, Cowell made that recommendation and others on behalf of several state education groups, including Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children , the Mon Valley Education Consortium , Pennsylvania PTA
and the Pennsylvania School Reform Network .

Mostly, the groups called on the state Legislature to meet Gov. Ed Rendell's education funding requests: $250 million for "accountability block grants" distributed on the basis of state test scores; $34 million for tutoring grants for selected school districts; $15 million for Head Start funding; and a 2.5 percent increase in basic education and special education subsidies.

But it is Cowell's call for a cost study that could stir up a bit of controversy in Harrisburg, if the experiences of other states are any indication. At least 10 states have called for or completed studies on the costs of No Child Left Behind, with varying results and methods, Scott Young of the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures said yesterday.

In Ohio, a report drafted by a Columbus consulting firm suggests that the state receives only $44 million in education subsidies from the federal government each year, while the cost of meeting No Child Left Behind objectives is closer to $1 billion annually.

Republican lawmakers took issue with that charge, saying the consulting firm was understating federal aid, and making what amounts to a "wild guess" at the full cost of No Child Left Behind.

In 2002, a study by the New Hampshire School Administrators Association found that No Child Left Behind will cost the state an additional $575 per student, but new federal money amounted to only $77 per student.

That finding also became the center of controversy -- a separate study from the Josiah Bartlett Center, a public policy think tank, concluded that money from Washington, D.C., will more than cover the cost of the new law. The first said New Hampshire's annual price tag would come to $100 million,
while the Bartlett foundation settled on a $7 million figure.

Minnesota auditors say that the required testing alone will cost $19 million a year by 2008.

Maine's education commissioner is preparing a report on how much federal funding will be needed to meet the mandates. Hawaii, Connecticut, Utah, Indiana, North Dakota and Vermont are doing the same, or have already completed reports.

Meanwhile, the National Education Association, a teachers union, says that the federal government fell short of full funding of No Child Left Behind by $32.6 billion in 2003.

Because of the widely varied estimates, the Council of Chief State School Officers plans to hire a firm next week to conduct a national study using uniform criteria to determine the costs.

"We want to get a real number that we can get comfortable with," said Jordan Cross, manager of government relations for the Washington-based council.

"We've been in this constant debate back and forth: Is this an unfunded mandate or not?"

Cross said participating states will use a standardized form to submit their information to the council, which hopes to complete the report before summer.

"A lot of school districts and states have tried to examine this and they've used very different criteria," Cross said yesterday.

The council, a bipartisan and nonprofit organization of state education department heads, took bids for the work from "some of the best experts in the country" and will name the winning firm next week, Cross said.

In light of the difficulty other states have had in settling on a workable figure, and knowing ahead of time that opposing political groups are likely to arrive at vastly different numbers, why should Pennsylvania bother with its own study?

And, given how quickly education technology changes, is it even possible to reasonably guess how much it will cost to teach a child 10 years from now?

"You can come up with a fairly precise figure," Cowell argued, so long as you keep in mind "that it's a snapshot and knowing it's going to change."

He suggested that the Legislature draft a joint resolution authorizing the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to calculate the administrative cost of implementing the No Child requirements, and the average per-student cost of bringing Pennsylvania's children to proficiency.

— Bill Toland and Jane Elizabeth
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
2004-02-27


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