Will Minnesota leave ‘No Child’ behind?

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If you ask 10 Minnesota legislators what they think of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, you will get 10 different answers.

Some like it; some hate it and some are conflicted, but few would say they love every part of the sweeping federal law.

Critics say that implementation of the law is expensive and federal funding has not matched federal demands, not to mention that the law mandates 100 percent proficiency by 2014 in reading and math, something some see as a pipe dream.

Since the law was enacted in 2002, states, including Minnesota, have tried to pass laws to nullify certain provisions in the act or petition the federal Department of Education for exemptions. Minnesota could now opt out entirely, if a provision sponsored by Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington), makes it in to HF1812, the Omnibus Supplemental Budget Bill.

On April 15, an E-12 work group recommended removing the amendment opting out of NCLB from the Omnibus Supplemental Budget Bill. The work group recommendations are nonbinding and the conference committee still has to decide whether to include it in the bill that would be presented to Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

“No Child Left Behind, while well-intentioned, is federal oversight and federal control of our schools,” Garofalo said, “I don’t like Farmington teachers being told what to do by the federal government.” Given the choice, citizens would rather pay more for education if they could have local control.

Signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 increased federal funding for education by 24 percent, but included an unprecedented number of unfunded mandates and sanctions. David Shreve, federal affairs education counsel for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said in an interview the law was supposed to be renewed by October 2007, but with no congressional action, a provision allowed for the law to be automatically extended.

The act culminates more than four decades of federal expansion into public education, which began with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, according to information from the NCSL. That act appropriated about $2 billion to help improve educational opportunities for low-income students.

Why not just opt out?

To consider the total cost of No Child Left Behind, Shreve said you have to look at two factors: what it costs to comply and what it costs to meet the performance requirements of the law.

To meet the compliance goals, many states spend upwards of 6 percent of their education budget. Federal funding equals about 2 percent of a state’s education budget. States are supposed to meet 100 percent compliance for the law by 2014, he said.

The money that comes from the federal government, on the other hand, equals about 2 percent of a state’s education budget, so it costs a state roughly twice the amount of money they receive to comply.

The latest state data on the impact of NCLB, a 2004 report by the Office of the Legislative Auditor, found that costs could soon outstrip revenue from the federal government because of sanctions for underperforming schools. However, if the state had opted out of the accountability provisions, it would have lost $216 million for 2005.

Part of the problem, Shreve said, is that when schools aim for higher achievement levels, their costs increase. That means a state can have a short-term cash problem.

“I sort of look at No Child Left Behind as the classic bait and switch,” Shreve said.

Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said the biggest concern of opting out would be the potential loss of $200 million in federal funding.

“I don’t see the federal government backing out of No Child Left Behind,” she said. She sees the act’s 2014 goal as utopian, and said as that deadline looms, the Department of Education will likely be more flexible.

“There are just so many ways you cannot meet adequate yearly progress,” she said.

Minnesota is not alone in its frustration or its reaction.

Shreve said states have been trying to opt out of the law, in some form or another, since its passage.

“It was pretty comprehensive, the reaction initially,” he said. Utah toyed with the idea of opting out in 2003. In 2005, the state passed a bill saying the state would comply with NCLB only until the law got in the way of the state’s accountability system.

An Arizona bill sponsored by Rep. David Schapira, a Democrat, would opt the state out by 2011, and fund the difference with state money. “Ideally, I hope that the feds will fix and fund it and we don’t have to opt out,” Schapira said.

Shreve said these bills could be looked at as a negotiating ploy in a time when NCLB is vulnerable. “You’ve got the law, and the supporters of the law, reeling on the ropes like a punch-drunk boxer.”

Member reaction

Members of the House K-12 Finance Division have mixed reactions to Garofalo’s proposal to opt out of NCLB.

Rep. Marsha Swails (DFL-Woodbury) said the state is in the middle of a budget crisis, and now is not the time to start making changes.

“I do believe that schools are improving under it, I do believe that with all of my heart,” she said. On the other hand, some of the measures are punitive and the testing does not show improvement in individual students.

“I think the message is loud and clear from states across the nation that we are tired of mandates from the federal government,” she said.

Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL-Mpls) is conflicted, he said. His daughter’s school did not meet adequate yearly progress three or four years ago because two students in a subgroup were tested once but not again.

Though he has problems with NCLB, Davnie said schools need some form of accountability.

“Like it or not, standardized testing is probably a part of that,” he said, and he would need to see an alternative before scrapping the program.

Rep. Randy Demmer (R-Hayfield) said it’s hard to argue with the principles of NCLB.

Demmer said he is a strong advocate for local control, and this does not overstep that. He said the bill creates a framework that states and districts use, and a little accountability is not a bad thing.

“I think its best for our children and best for our schools to continue to work with that program,” he said.

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