No Child Left Behind: financing the law

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(Host) President Bush says his “No Child Left Behind” policy will ensure all children receive an education – no matter what their background or needs. As part of the new law, each state sets its own standards and devises tests to assess how well children are meeting those standards. Federal law requires states to identify failing schools, largely on the basis of those test scores. The president promised historic increases in education spending to help states meet the new policy.

But as VPR’s Nina Keck reports, in the second of a two-part series, many educators argue the federal money won’t come close to covering the costs of the new mandate:

(Keck) It’s science day for fourth graders at Currier Elementary School in Danby. The students hover excitedly over beakers of water.

(Sound from the classroom) “Talk to each other and then write down if you noticed or discovered something about fractions.”

(Keck) In 2001, Currier Elementary was one of a number of Vermont schools put on notice because of low test scores. While the label may have hurt morale, the school actually benefited because it qualified for additional state funding – technical support money that paid for consultants, extra tutoring and teacher development. Currier’s test scores went up and they’re off the list.

But Currier now faces the daunting challenge confronting every public school in Vermont: how to make sure every child continues to make adequate yearly progress toward the state’s tough standards.

(Bud Meyers) “To get all students to state standards by 2013 or 2014, it’s a very tall order.”

(Keck) Bud Meyers is deputy commissioner for standards and assessments at the Vermont Department of Education. While Meyers can appreciate the goals of the law, he says they’ll be impossible to reach without more money.

He says under the No Child Left Behind Law, within three years 80% percent of public schools in Vermont will be classified as failing. And state money that has traditionally been used to help struggling schools – like the money that helped Currier elementary – will no longer meet demand.

U.S. Senator James Jeffords, former Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, says unfortunately, there won’t be much help from Washington:

(Jeffords) “Thus Vermont and all the states which are now facing tremendous crisis in funding, basically because of the lack of money is in their own economies and the lack of taxes. They’re going to be in dire straits to try to even make a minimum effort toward meeting the goals of No Child Left Behind. Without the federal government’s help, the states are just not going to be able to do it.”

(Keck) But Dan Langan, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education says the federal government is setting aside more money than ever before to help strengthen education.

(Langan) “In Vermont, under the proposed 2004 budget, Vermont would receive about $135 million in federal funds. That’s about $27 million more than in 2001. They get more than $60 million to help implement the reforms of the No Child Left Behind Act.”

(Keck) Langan says for too long, student performance nationwide has been flat. He says it’s time taxpayers held their schools accountable.

(Langan) “With No Child Left Behind, we’re ensuring that not only is there more money, but that money is being spent more wisely and that states are accountable for results.”

(Keck) But Bill Mathis, superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, says when you consider the size of the president’s recent tax cut, the actual increase in this year’s federal education spending is a joke.

(Mathis) “And they went from $11 billion to $12 billion. Well, whoop-dee-do! That’s small change. To implement this law you need a new investment nationally on the low side of $85 billion, on the high side estimate $150 billion additionally. So what this means is that the local schools have to scrap for themselves in terms of this.”

(Keck) Vermont already tests English and math proficiency in the 4th, 8th and 10th grades. Under No Child Left Behind, testing will eventually include science and occur every year from third through eighth grade. One high school grade will also be tested. Mathis says creating new tests will cost the state millions. Add to that expensive remedial education for students with special needs, and Mathis says the price tag for leaving no child behind will skyrocket. Mathis says at present funding levels, there’s no way it can work.

(Mathis) “A child who is the child of a single mom – boyfriend comes home and maybe beats up dad, they didn’t have supper that night and the kid comes to school without breakfast sometimes sleeping in terrible conditions. And we’re going to expect them to achieve and learn phonics the next morning? Well, it isn’t going to happen. And to pretend that schools are going to solve these problems on their own, which this law pretends it will, is just simply wrong.”

(Keck) Leicester Elementary School has 84 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. Principal Carol Eckels says she’s blessed with excellent teachers and many high achieving students. But she says they also have a large number of children who are struggling. More than one-third of Leicester’s students receive free or reduced price lunches and 58% qualify for special education. Eckels says it’s hard to help truly needy kids on a shoestring budget.

(Eckels) “The last two years our budget has gone down three times before it passes. And this community has one of the lowest tax rates around and they frankly, a lot of them, cannot afford to have the taxes go up. We have a librarian only a half-day a week. I tried to bring that up to a full day a week and the townspeople voted it down.”

(Keck) The tiny library, which is also used for band practice, is in the back corner of the cafeteria, next to the desks of the part-time guidance counselor and the school secretary. The phys-ed and remedial reading teachers also use the cafeteria when necessary. Eckels says they don’t have a separate special ed classroom, so the noisy cafeteria is also where students with low test scores are tutored.

She says a bond that would pay for a much needed renovation and addition has been voted down four times. No child should be left behind, says Eckels, but she says there’s a lot the federal government could do to help a small rural school like hers.

(Eckels) “Now if they came along and said we will fund a preschool for you, we will fund a full day kinder garden for you. We will make sure that your children have art music, PE library like other children in this state or the country, maybe there’d be something to it, but we’re not starting with a level playing field and I feel very strongly about that in case you haven’t noticed.”

(Libby Sternberg) “So in other words, people in the education system are saying they need more money? What a shock.”

(Keck) Libby Sternberg is executive director for Vermonters For Better Education, a nonprofit organization committed to education reform and promoting school choice.

(Sternberg) “It’s not that I don’t think financial resources aren’t important – they are important. But I think a lot of the critics are using criticisms of the No Child Left Behind act as an argument for more money.”

(Keck) Sternberg says millions of federal dollars are already being spent on education and, as a taxpayer, she likes the accountability of the No Child Left Behind law.

(Douglas) “This is a real challenge that goes beyond No Child Left Behind. It’s the whole dilemma of how to pay for public education in Vermont.”

(Keck) Governor Jim Douglas says he and the nation’s governors made it clear to the president when they met with him in February that they don’t like unfunded mandates. Douglas says more federal funding will be needed to make the No Child Left Behind policy work, but he says he’s not sure anyone really knows what the ultimate cost will be. In the meantime, he says, Vermont will simply have to get creative to ensure the state’s high standards can be met.

(Michele Vail) “I think that teachers by nature are creative.”

(Keck) Michele Vail has taught special education at Currier Elementary School in Danby for four years. She says she has children who need expensive hearing aids, specialized textbooks and other costly materials – not to mention hours of one-on-one instruction.

(Vail) “We do need the money to provide the education to the students so that we can bring them up. But we’re not going to be able to do it with the resources that we currently have, not in this building anyway.”

(Keck) Funding is a constant struggle, says Vail, and it will likely only get worse for schools. She points to herself as an example. Next year she won’t be back. Townspeople voted down Currier’s latest budget and Vail’s position will have to be cut.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck in Rutland.

Related links:
Vermont Education Department has extensive information on how Vermont in complying with law.
Federal government’s NCLB web site
New Hampshire Public Radio presents information, links and an online forum on how the law affects that state.

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