NCLB resistance mounts

Opposition to the Bush administration’s implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is mounting. At press time, school districts or teachers’ unions in at least 10 states–Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, and Vermont–had signed on as plaintiffs in the National Education Association’s lawsuit against the administration, which aims to free schools from complying with any part of the law not paid for by the federal government. And at least 18 states–including Utah, which supported Bush by the largest margin in the 2004 presidential election–have introduced bills that would protest or waive some of the law’s more stringent requirements.

Supporters of the opposition movement say the Bush administration and Congress have not lived up to their promise of fully funding the law, and some say the administration has not been flexible enough toward states that created their own accountability systems long before NCLB was enacted.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings in April outlined a plan for how the government would take a fairer and more flexible approach to implementing the law. Under the new policy, states seeking additional flexibility would receive credit for progress made regarding NCLB reforms already under way, she said. But Spellings had harsh words for legislators in Utah and other states that are protesting the law’s requirements: “Turning back the clock and returning to the pre-NCLB days of fuzzy accountability and hiding children in averages will do nothing to help the students who are currently enrolled in Utah’s schools.”

School technology leaders are watching the debate closely. Its outcome will impact not only how schools must implement the law’s requirements, but also how much federal funding is available for technology and other key initiatives.

The NEA lawsuit, filed April 20 in U.S. District Court in Detroit, is the first major challenge to President Bush’s signature education policy. The outcome would apply directly to the districts in the case, but it could affect how the law is enforced in schools across the country.

The NEA, which represents more than 2.7 million educators nationwide, alleges the federal government has failed to live up to its promise to pay for the costs associated with achieving the law’s goals and instead has saddled states and local school systems with a myriad of unfunded mandates.

According to the lawsuit, the rising costs associated with the sweeping federal law are forcing schools to divert important dollars from other endeavors, including class-size reduction, teacher retention and training, and the continued integration of technology in the nation’s classrooms. Without adequate funding, critics say, the law’s promise is unattainable–as is any chance teachers have of preparing students for the demands of the 21st century.

“Today we’re standing up for children whose parents are saying ‘no more’ to costly federal regulations that drain money from classrooms and spend it on paperwork, bureaucracy, and big testing companies,” said NEA President Reg Weaver in a statement. “The principle of the law is simple; if you regulate, you have to pay.”

Since the law’s enactment in 2001, there has been a $27 billion funding shortfall in what Congress was supposed to provide schools to meet the law’s requirements and what actually has been provided, NEA says. Now, critics say, the White House is attempting to reduce that shortfall by taking money from other programs and putting it toward the testing and accountability requirements of NCLB.

And the news gets worse in light of President Bush’s 2006 budget proposal, which includes a $1 billion overall reduction in federal education spending. This reduction includes the elimination of the $500 million Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program, which is the only dedicated source of ed-tech funding for many states.

The Bush administration argues there is flexibility in the law for states and school systems to divert funding from other sources, such as Title I, to pay for school technology. But many educators say there is no room for such flexibility because they must focus resources on preparing students for the high-stakes tests that lie at the law’s core.

The administration faces battles on other fronts, too. The Republican-led Utah Legislature voted April 19 to put its educational goals ahead of the federal law despite the possible loss of $76 million. Connecticut is planning its own lawsuit, and other states are balking over money:

  • Arizona schools chief Tom Horne has sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education (ED) asking for changes in the way Arizona schools are judged, which would prevent an estimated one-third, or 600, of the state’s schools from failing to meet NCLB standards. Horne calls the federal accountability rules too rigid to be fair.

  • In late April, Spellings fined Texas $444,282 for the state’s continued defiance of NCLB. For the last two years, the Texas Education Agency has exceeded the federal cap on how many students with learning disabilities can be exempted from regular state testing, as mandated by the act, in favor of an easier exam.

“For a couple of years now, schools have dealt with the stress and strain of the implications of No Child Left Behind,” said Margaret Trimer-Hartley, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Education Association, that state’s largest teachers union. “How sad it is that we had to file a lawsuit to get [federal officials] to live up their promises to adequately fund education.”

The NEA says its lawsuit is not about stopping NCLB, but about forcing the Bush administration “to follow the requirements of its own law and pay for the regulations it is imposing on children’s classrooms.”

ED responded by calling the lawsuit “regrettable” and accused the NEA and other plaintiffs of not looking at the whole picture.

“President Bush and Congress have provided historic funding increases for education, and yet we continue to hear the same weak arguments from the NEA,” wrote ED’s press secretary, Susan Aspey, in a statement. “Four separate studies assert the law is appropriately funded and not a mandate.”

NCLB “is, at its core, about fairness and educational opportunity for all students,” continued Aspey. “The preliminary results are in, and in just three short years, states across the nation are showing strong gains in student achievement. The achievement gap–decades in the making–is finally starting to narrow.”

Rather than fight the law, Aspey called on the NEA and other opponents to work with federal officials toward achieving a common goal.

“We intend to continue moving forward in partnership with national and state education leaders, and look forward to the day when the NEA will join us in helping children who need our help the most in classrooms, instead of spending its time and members’ money in courtrooms,” Aspey said.

See these related links:

National Education Association

Lawsuit details

U.S. Department of Education

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