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Wisconsin Bucks No Child Left Behind

Ellen Atkins' question puts the whole thing in perspective.

MADISON, WIS. -- Ellen Akins attended a meeting in Cornucopia, Wis., recently where a school administrator explained No Child Left Behind, the federal government's plan to improve the nation's schools.

"It was largely a map of progressively rising proficiency levels, ultimately reaching 100 percent," Akins said. "Another mother and I looked at each other and laughed. She said, 'Does this mean that by the time my daughter's 16 she'll never get anything wrong?' "

School's out, but the halls of Wisconsin's schools still echo with debate over No Child Left Behind. And educators across the country are listening.

The debate heated up last month when state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager issued an opinion that Wisconsin has no legal obligation to implement the law because it fails to adequately fund the testing and other activities it requires.

There had been resistance in other states.

And in March the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) formed a task force to recommend changes. But Lautenschlager's opinion was the first such ruling in the nation by a top state official.

"We've heard from a lot of people around the country," she said last week. "There's a lot of concern out there."

Her opinion, a response to an inquiry from a Democratic state senator, holds that states "are entitled to take Congress at its word that it did not intend to require state and local governments to expend their own funds to comply" with the federal mandates.

In effect, she invited school districts or the state to sue the federal government, which brought cheers from the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), the state's largest teachers union, which believes the law is inflexible, punitive and underfunded.

The opinion also brought a quick response from the Bush administration. Days after it was issued, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige was in Milwaukee, insisting sharply that Lautenschlager, a Democrat, was wrong.

In a speech June 4 in Detroit, he said critics are motivated by election-year politics. "They are whiners," he said.

Lautenschlager said she was "amazed" by the negative response, which included a statement by the Republican Party of Wisconsin that her analysis was "an opinion by a Democrat motivated by politics instead of the facts."

Lautenschlager said she has "strong opinions about the importance of education," but attorneys who researched the issue "were given no instructions except to analyze." For the secretary of education to "come to Milwaukee and comment on this letter was dumbfounding to me. We obviously hit a nerve, the response was so direct and so intense," she said.

Stan Johnson, WEAC president, wants a court challenge.

"The attorney general's opinion left the door open for some districts or the state to sue," he said. "I'd like to see some districts get together and do that.

"Even if the law was fully funded, it doesn't address what schools really need ... to meet the ideals of the law."

Shortly after the opinion was issued, Johnson attended a meeting in Chicago of nine Midwestern state teachers unions. "There was a lot of interest in the opinion," he said. "Several people said they wanted their attorney general to take a look at it," and at least one other state -- Ohio -- is contemplating legal action.

But because it will take time to calculate costs required but not covered by the law -- and because the issue has become entangled in politics -- Johnson said he doubts any formal challenge will come until 2005.

"I would not expect anything before the election because it would be seen as the unions and Democrats trying to get at Bush," he said. "But people need to take a hard look at this law. It's going to sneak up on the public as more and more districts are labeled as 'in need of improvement' and face sanctions."

Support, evidence

The law requires testing of all third- through eighth-graders in reading and math, with all students to be performing at their grade level by 2014. It imposes sanctions against schools that don't show improvement, including allowing parents to transfer children from a school "in need of improvement" to another school in the district -- with the weaker school paying the costs.

According to the NCSL, more than 20 states have considered ways to end their participation in No Child Left Behind, to seek full funding for participation or to propose changes in the law.

In Pennsylvania, the Reading School District has sued the state education department.

"That's what the Wisconsin [opinion] has done: give districts like Reading support and a little evidence," said Scott Young, who handles education issues for NCSL. But he doesn't expect to see anyone suing the federal government soon.

"A lot of states are considering what to do about it, but it may not be in their best interest to challenge this right now," Young said. "Maybe wait until states feel the full force of the federal requirements and know the full costs."

The bipartisan NCSL task force, co-chaired by state Sens. Steve Kelley of Minnesota and Stephen Saland of New York, has among its goals "to ensure that federal funding is commensurate with the requirements of the law, preventing undue fiscal burdens on states."

The act has "laudatory purposes," Saland said in an NCSL briefing paper earlier this year, but there is widespread belief that it "imposes a number of unfunded and underfunded mandates" and "some of its requirements are unreasonably ... difficult to attain."

Ken Cole, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said the association cautioned districts against racing into court with an undocumented case of distress.

"Down the road, with the hierarchy of sanctions that kick in, they may be required to provide supplemental services to students," Cole said. If those costs aren't supported, "we'd be interested then in looking into [a challenge].

"The purpose of the law, that every young person be given every opportunity and have all kinds of effort expended to get them to grade level -- that's not a bad concept. School board members and teachers understand that," he said.

"The notion of accountability may be rigorous, but that may be where the future's at. The idea of 'You just give us the money and we'll just do our best' -- that's losing momentum."

Lautenschlager agreed that districts may need more time to document costs.

"I think that's fair," she said. "But in the past few weeks, many organizations have shown us statistics that make it clear [the] funding is inadequate."

One study, by the Institute for Wisconsin's Future, a policy research center in Milwaukee, suggests it would cost an additional $2,880 per pupil to provide the smaller classes and remedial programs necessary to achieve 100 percent student proficiency in math and reading. And the General Accounting Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, estimates that nationwide costs of testing alone could exceed $5 billion between 2002 and 2008.

One student short

Critics of the law also argue that its testing requirements are inflexible and punitive. They also come at a bad time, said Akins, the Cornucopia parent.

"We're losing and cutting programs and teachers, from art and music to French and gifted-and-talented, while the students are subjected to an ever-greater battery of tests that cost plenty but otherwise make no difference whatsoever," she said. "The emphasis is skewed. Kids can't be tested into perfection."

Madison's LaFollette High School was placed on the list of schools designated as "in need of improvement" this spring when it fell one black student short on test participation.

The law requires that 95 percent of students in each of four ethnic subgroups take the tests. LaFollette improved participation over last year, Principal Michael Meissen said, but only 69 of 74 black students reported for the 2004 test -- 93 percent.

"I think there are [many] dimensions to determining the success of a school," Meissen said. "If the model could be geared toward improvement -- that's what I believe in."

Chuck Haga is at crhaga@startribune.com.

— Chuck Haga
Star Tribune


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