More states defying federal government on education law

Posted July 21, 2011, at 10:17 p.m.

BOISE, Idaho — At least three states are vowing to ignore the latest requirements under the No Child Left Behind law in an act of defiance against the federal government that demonstrates their growing frustration over an education program they say sets unrealistic benchmarks for schools.

The law sets a goal of having 100 percent of students proficient in math and reading by 2014, but states were allowed to establish how much schools must improve each year. Many states saved the biggest leaps for the final years, anticipating the law would be changed.

But it hasn’t, and states like Idaho, Montana and South Dakota are fed up. They are preparing to reject the latest requirements for determining school progress under the 9-year-old law — even if the move toward noncompliance may put them at risk of losing some federal funding.

Idaho will no longer raise the benchmarks that public schools have to meet under No Child Left Behind, nor will it punish the schools that do not meet these higher testing goals, said Tom Luna, the state’s superintendent of public schools.

The federal requirements are unrealistic for schools to meet while they wait for the government to enact new education standards, he said.

“We’ve waited as long as we can,” Luna said.

Montana and South Dakota are also rejecting the latest No Child Left Behind targets, while Kentucky is seeking a waiver that would allow the state to use a different method to measure whether students are making adequate progress under the program.

And more states could follow in seeking relief from the federal requirements.

Federal officials recently warned Montana to get in line with the No Child Left Behind requirements by Aug. 15 or the federal government could withhold funds under an education program. The state receives more than $44 million in federal funding for that program, though it is unclear just how much of that money is at risk. In Idaho, that program is worth more than $54 million, and in Sou th Dakota, about $43.7 million.

As high-profile cheating investigations in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., call attention to statewide standardized testing, experts say many districts are feeling pressured to meet the standards to avoid penalties under the law.

The No Child Left Behind law was passed in 2001 and signed by then-President George W. Bush. It has been widely panned by critics who say it brands schools as failures even as they make progress, discourages high academic standards and encourages educators to teach to the test as opposed to providing practical classroom learning to students.

There’s bipartisan support for an overhaul, but Republicans and Democrats have different ideas about what sort of reforms should go into the law and how long writing a new bill should take. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has urged the U.S. House to finish before the next school year starts this fall, but the Republican chairman of the House education committee has said his panel plans t o work through the fall.

Montana Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau said the state decided to freeze the federal requirements so schools will not be inaccurately labeled as failing — and suffer the scorn that comes along with the classification.

“Everyone knows it’s broken. And the biggest broken piece of No Child Left Behind are these arbitrary bars,” Juneau said. “It’s one thing we could do to assist schools and not getting labeled as failing or be denigrated in the press when they are absolutely doing a better (job).”

Schools are required to meet 41 benchmarks for student achievement under the law and a school’s annual yearly progress is calculated based on test participation, academic achievement, graduation rates and other statistics.

But every few years, the percentage of students who must pass state tests increases.

Of the 821 public school schools in Montana, 255 are not making adequate yearly progress under the current benchmarks. If the state makes the next jump under No Child Left Behind, a whopping 383 schools — nearly half — wouldn’t be up to snuff under the federal law.

Juneau said she is optimistic her state will reach a compromise with the federal government on conforming to the law while also helping schools.

In Florida, where just 10 percent of all elementary, middle and high schools met adequate yearly progress goals under No Child Left Behind law in 2011, Interim Education Commissioner John L. Winn said he couldn’t say whether his state might seek a reprieve.

Winn is going to let the new education commissioner, who starts in August, decide what action to take, he said.

“He’s got to live with that decision,” Winn said. “I think I’m going to defer it to him.”

Duncan is frustrated with he has called a “slow motion train wreck” for U.S. schools, warning that many could be labeled as failing under the law if it isn’t reformed. His solution? Grant waivers to the law in exchange for states embracing the department’s ideas on education reform.

Those reforms would be similar to those encouraged in the $4 billion Race to the Top grant competition, which include performance pay for teachers and growth in charter schools, Duncan has said.

But that plan sparked questions from the chairman of the House education committee, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who wrote Duncan in late June and asked the secretary to explain how the department has the authority to grant waivers “in exchange for reforms not authorized by Congress.”

In his response earlier this month, Duncan said he had the legal authority to grant waivers to the statutory requirements of the law if that’s best for students.

At the same time, many states are looking to create new accountability systems that can replace the rules of No Child Left Behind. Last month, the Council of Chief State School Officers announced 41 states would work together to implement improved systems to hold schools accountable.

“There is a great dissatisfaction with current accountability system that exist in the U.S.,” said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based council. “It’s not a matter of relief from accountability. It’s redesigning it so we have a much more positive environment.”

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Associated Press writer Dorie Turner contributed to this story from Atlanta.

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