Built to Fail

The federal No Child Left Behind law is threatening to wreck public education in Minnesota and elsewhere. That's what it was designed to do.

During last year's session of the Minnesota Legislature, Yecke's boss, Governor Tim Pawlenty, cut $185 million from the education budget, the first real-dollar reductions education has suffered in modern state history. Neither Pawlenty nor Yecke was prepared at the time to tell parents and the public which kids they expected would bear the brunt of these cuts, but special education funding and compensatory aid (the latter is meted out to schools according to how many of their students qualify for free and reduced lunches) were two of the line items that felt the pinch.

Which begs the question: Who is going to foot the bill for this cornerstone of the Bush administration?


Impose the mandate, starve the funding

As might be expected, creating an education system that does not allow a single one of our nation's students to be left behind is going to be expensive. A raft of new tests are being developed, administered, and assessed. As more and more schools inevitably land on the AYP failure list for longer periods of time, the cost of providing tutorial services, transporting students to other schools, changing the curriculum, replacing the staff, and eventually restructuring the entire school or district will steadily mount.

Now that NCLB is at a stage where schools and districts across the country are beginning to contend with the law's first remedial sanctions, many state legislators, researchers, and education officials are growing nervous that they will be saddled with huge costs from an unfunded federal mandate, as they already are in the case of special education. In January, the Ohio Department of Education released a study estimating that it will cost about $1.5 billion a year--twice the amount the state now receives from the federal government--to implement NCLB.

William Mathis, a superintendent of a Vermont school district near Rutland and a senior fellow of the Vermont Society for the Study of Education, has analyzed studies from 18 different states, which project the costs of raising test scores to meet either the requirements of NCLB or their own state standards. Nearly all of them reveal that, even with the assistance of federal Title I money, states would need to raise their education budgets more than 20 percent to raise student performance across the board. As needs outpace means and delineations of bureaucratic turf become thoroughly scrambled in this new NCLB environment, tensions have occasionally run high. There's been talk of local schools and districts suing the state for funds to implement the law, and states doing the same thing in turn at the federal level. And late last month, Paige made headlines with his comparison of the National Education Association to a "terrorist organization" for opposing NCLB.

Here in Minnesota, the auditor's report noted that it was too early in the NCLB process to make any detailed predictions about the law's fiscal impact, but pointedly added that it was "quite plausible" that its costs would exceed its funding. Meanwhile, for entirely different reasons, Republican and DFL lawmakers have both introduced legislation opposing NCLB. In defiance of the staunch support both Yecke and Pawlenty have shown for NCLB, conservative Republican Senator Michelle Bachman wants to follow Utah's lead and opt out of NCLB altogether, disturbed by the notion of "the federal government coming in and taking over our local schools and classrooms."

Meanwhile, DFL Rep. Mindy Greiling is sponsoring a bill that asks Washington for permission not to participate in the NCLB process. "I think all this lip service we hear, caring about poor and immigrant groups, is just a smoke screen for proving that the public schools are failing so they can go to Plan B, which is vouchers," she says. "If we were going to provide extraordinary intervention so we could help these children, I would be cheerleading NCLB. But instead, we've cut funding that would help address their needs. And then if the schools don't show progress, we're going to obliterate the schools? No, it's a punitive bill that bastardizes the name and intent of the Children's Defense Fund, which is where they got it from. I mean, 'No Child Left Behind.' I mean, who isn't being left behind? The kids? The schools? Who?"

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