NCLB backlash expected to grow

When Connecticut on Aug. 22 became the first state to file suit against the Bush administration’s signature education law, the action was only the latest indication of a rising rebellion against the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

The Connecticut suit names U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, and charges the federal government with violating state law as well as a federal law prohibiting unfunded mandates.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal filed the suit. At a press conference, Blumenthal had this advice for Spellings: “Give up your unfunded mandates or give us the money. Live up to the law’s promise. Show us flexibility or show us the money. This mindless rigidity harms our taxpayers–but most of all our children, who are robbed of resources in their classrooms.”

In response to the lawsuit, Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education (ED), released a statement: “It’s unfortunate that [Connecticut officials have] chosen to address their achievement gap with a lawsuit that takes attention away from their neediest students. NCLB is designed to close these gaps and raise achievement for all students, regardless of race, income, or background. But unfortunately, today’s action doesn’t bring the state any closer to closing its achievement gap.”

Along with Blumenthal, state attorneys general, legislators, governors, and educators all have expressed a mounting displeasure with NCLB and its implementation. Until recently, however, the public at large has seemed generally oblivious to NCLB. Now, that too might be changing.

A nationwide survey released Aug. 23 reports an increasing number of Americans say they know a good bit about NCLB. But it appears the more they know about it, the less they like it.

According to the 37th Annual Phi Delta Kappa (PDK)/Gallup Poll of the “Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools,” the public likes NCLB’s goals but rejects the strategies used to implement those goals. “The concern rises to the level where, if a large number of schools fail to make the mandated adequate yearly progress, the public is at least as likely to blame the law as it is to blame the school,” according to a statement accompanying the poll’s finding.

“These results tell us that the public hasn’t turned its back on NCLB but is likely to do so if the law’s strategies are not tailored to commonsense approaches,” reports Lowell Rose, the former executive director of PDK International and co-author of the poll. “Policy makers would be well advised to listen.”

Conn. Attorney General Richard Blumenthal held a news conference on Monday in Hartford to announce that his state has filed a federal lawsuit challenging President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. (Associated Press photo)

The 2004-2005 school year saw a gathering resistance to the law, but the school year just beginning promises to bring a dramatic rise in outright opposition, according to a new report by, a project of the nonprofit Civil Society Institute (CSI). Forty-seven out of 50 states already have expressed some sort of rebellion against the law, and the report says Minnesota, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey, and Virginia are among several “hot spots” that are “likely to flare up.”

The August 17 report, entitled “NCLB Left Behind: Understanding the Growing Grassroots Rebellion Against a Controversial Law,” gives an overview of state struggles with and actions against the law. Opposition is set to rise even further this year, the report predicts, as penalties become harsher and more schools are caught in the web of sanctions.

“There are clear signs of an unprecedented bipartisan revolt afoot against the No Child Left Behind Act,” CSI President Pam Solo wrote in the report. “Those responsible for implementing NCLB at the local level–administrators, teachers, parents, and school boards–are increasingly skeptical that NCLB’s rigid approach will help close the achievement gap, fearing that the law may, in fact, hamper promising approaches that had started to take root before NCLB.”

The report identifies indicators of the NCLB backlash as anti-NCLB legislation, litigation, unfunded-mandate cost studies, school failure-rate studies, and opting out of the law’s provisions.

Nationwide, the report says, several complaints are heard repeatedly. The two most prevalent, according the CSI, are (a) that NCLB relies too heavily on standardized testing, causing valuable teaching time to be wasted on test preparation, and (b) that it is under-funded.

Colorado, Utah, Connecticut, and Virginia are among the states that have passed resolutions critical of NCLB through both chambers of their legislatures, and Utah and Colorado have led the way in opting out of NCLB, according to the report. Utah passed a law giving state education legislation priority over NCLB, even though the state could lose more than $76 million in federal funding. Colorado passed a law permitting local districts to opt out of NCLB without facing state penalties.

Connecticut’s “lawsuit argues that NCLB is illegal because it requires expensive standardized tests and other school programs that the government doesn’t pay for,” the Associated Press reported. “It asks a federal judge to declare that state and local money cannot be used to meet the law’s goals.”

“The federal government has rejected and even ridiculed requests for full funding or flexibility under No Child Left Behind. It has been rigid and irrational–repeatedly denying any meaningful waiver–leaving us no choice,” Blumenthal said in the report, just days before filing his lawsuit.

Individual school districts also are taking action against NCLB requirements. Eleven districts in California filed a lawsuit against the state over NCLB requirements for testing English language learners.

Several school districts in Illinois chose not to accept federal Title I funding, relieving them of the obligation to implement and adhere to NCLB, according to the report.

Nine school districts from Michigan, Vermont, and Texas, along with the National Education Association (NEA) and 10 state and local NEA chapters, have sued, claiming the federal government cannot force states and school districts to spend their own money on NCLB requirements.

“This district has been very assertive in its criticism of the rigid, high-stakes approach to student accountability,” said Sylvia Bruni, assistant superintendent of schools for the Laredo (Texas) Independent School District, commenting on the CSI report. “We see NCLB as the Big Brother of this type of unreasonable assessment of children’s learning. We have reason to be concerned.”

Said Lisa Schiff, board president of San Francisco’s Parents for Public Schools: “No Child Left Behind, with its singular focus on standardized test scores and open-door approach for military recruiters, does not provide the educational opportunities we as parents want for our children,”

Schiff elaborated on what parents in her group are looking for: “Instead of becoming merely excellent test-takers, we want our children to be strong, independent thinkers, who are exposed to a variety of subjects and ways of considering experiences.”

Many state leaders find funding inadequate to support NCLB’s implementation, according to the CSI report. Fourteen states are participating in the Council of Chief State School Officers’ NCLB Cost Consortium, designed to help states determine NCLB implementation costs at the state and local levels.

Connecticut and New Mexico already have released their cost studies. Connecticut’s study indicated that NCLB implementation will cost the state $41.6 million more than it receives from the federal government through FY 2008. New Mexico’s study showed that implementation will cost between $10.1 million and $17.7 million per year at the state level.

Hawaii, Minnesota, Texas, and other states have released cost analyses showing significant funding gaps in NCLB. These estimates vary, depending on state size and the degree of compatibility between the states’ pre-existing accountability system and NCLB requirements.

ED was critical of the CSI report.

“It is unfortunate that some appear to think that reform is more trouble than it’s worth and are not acting in the best interest of America’s children,” said Samara Yudof, from ED’s Office of Public Affairs. “What is really happening is a revolution of accountability and high standards across the nation. Nearly every state is working hard to help all students achieve. No Child Left Behind is working … both the Nation’s Report Card and the states’ own data prove it.”

Even though the July 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores–often called the “nation’s report card”–indicated a narrowing achievement gap in reading and math since the 1999 test, NAEP board members cautioned against attributing that progress to NCLB. They pointed out the achievement gap began narrowing in the years before NCLB became a law, owing in large part to a range of states’ efforts. (See “Reading, math up for nine-year-olds.) has compiled a database of local and national articles that documented a growing rebellion against the law, and the report is based on information contained in this database. The report predicts that a more widespread rebellion will begin to take root during the 2005-2006 school year as NCLB penalties become even harsher. monitors how U.S. communities address the challenges of NCLB.

In the Connecticut case, Blumenthal said ED has 60 days to respond to the suit. He said he believes ED will try to have the suit dismissed. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Mark Kravitz.

Links: report

Civil Society Institute

National Assessment of Education Progress

U.S. Department of Education

Laura Ascione

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