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Three Cheers for Alaska Teachers!!!

Susan Notes: Let this be the beginning of a national trend: Teachers standing up and saying "No" to the Feds and "Yes" to children!!

Alaska teachers at their annual union gathering on Saturday voted to encourage the state to ignore the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind law and consequently give up millions of dollars in funding.

The meeting of the National Education Association's Alaska chapter at The Hilton Anchorage was closed to the public. But educators who were there say the vote, for some, was a philosophical opposition to the law. For others, it sprang from frustrations with the demanding law and what some teachers consider to be inadequate funding.

"Basically it broadened the question, the whole notion, of whether going through the No Child Left Behind hoops was worth it for the state," said Rich Kronberg, union president. "The organization's opinion is they would rather not have the funding and not have to deal with the mandates."

The education reform law requires additional standardized tests and demands annual student improvement on those exams, as well as tougher teacher qualifications. Public school districts have found meeting the requirements is expensive and time consuming. It often means hiring more staff members or starting new programs to help students make progress.

Failing to show improvement packs consequences in schools classified as Title 1, where 50 percent or more of students qualify for the federal free and reduced-price meals program. Those schools also receive federal Title 1 funding to hire people like teacher aides, counselors and tutors.

A handful of districts in other states, including Vermont and Connecticut, have decided the federal money isn't worth the hassle of meeting the No Child Left Behind standards. Some districts there have chosen to ignore the law. Vermont, Utah and Hawaii are contemplating giving up their state allotments.

"It's very tempting," said Carol Comeau, superintendent of the Anchorage School District.

But it's hard to turn away any money, she said. The Anchorage School Board just last week approved cutting $26.2 million from its 2004-05 school year budget. The district expects at least a $20 million deficit next year.

"As much as I am frustrated with No Child Left Behind and the lack of appropriate adequate funding, I could not recommend eliminating all federal funding from the state of Alaska and certainly (not) from the Anchorage School District," Comeau said. "Those funds are critical."

But how much would be lost? No one knows for sure. The U.S. Department of Education hasn't detailed which funds would be in jeopardy if a district or state declined to comply with the law.

Alaska public schools last year got about $180 million in federal funds, and Anchorage schools got about $38 million of that.

Rhonda Gardner, the district's coordinator for No Child Left Behind, said about $10 million of Anchorage's federal money falls in the Title 1A category, which is designed to improve basic education programs in schools with a large number of students from low-income families.

"What most districts are assuming is they are only losing their Title 1A dollars" if they choose to not comply, Gardner said. "That might be true. In some of the presentations I've heard from lawyers across the nation is there's some concern you might be putting other funds in jeopardy."

Also, states would still have to follow some parts of the law, Gardner said. Teachers would still need to be deemed "highly qualified," and students would still have to take standardized tests every year.

The difference, Gardner said, is Title 1 schools that fail to meet improvement benchmarks on exams would be spared federal sanctions, like a requirement that districts offer students in schools that don't show improvement free transportation to schools that do.

Bob Roses, president of the Anchorage Education Association, the local branch of the state union, attended Saturday's meeting. He said most of the more than 500 teachers voted in favor of asking the staff and management of the union "to approach the (Alaska) department of education and encourage them to consider possibility of rejecting (federal) funds."

Roses voted against the notion.

"It isn't cost effective to do it," he said. "In my opinion, I don't think (the state is) ever going to take that position."

To date, state education officials haven't discussed ignoring No Child Left Behind, said Harry Gamble, spokesman with the Department of Education and Early Development.

Jake Metcalfe, president of the Anchorage School Board, said the federal law is poorly written and states should be allowed more flexibility in meeting its guidelines.

But abandoning it altogether? Metcalfe said it's best to try to change it.

"At some point, when people continue to be inflexible, it may be best to just throw it out. But I don't think we're there yet."

— Katie Pesznecker
Teachers say no thanks to No Child Left Behind
Anchorage Daily News


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