'No Child' Law Vies For Scarce State Resources
The goals of the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001 appear to be on a collision course with states' fiscal woes this year, threatening to temper the federal law's ambitions as states struggle to deal with new mandates and budget crises at the same time.
Some legislators already say that putting in place new tests, creating systems to track data from those tests, and complying with a myriad of other new federal requirements in the midst of declining revenues and budget shortfalls will be difficult, maybe impossible. Some early analyses show states will have to spend much more than they receive in order to comply with the new law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which includes such major programs as Title I aid for disadvantaged students.
The Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures has estimated that it will cost states a total of $1 billion each year to comply with the testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, while the federal government is giving states only $400 million in the first year of the law.
The New Hampshire School Administrators Association, meanwhile, estimates that the new law will overall bring in about $17 million a year in revenue, but maintains that the state will incur at least $126.5 million each year in new costs—roughly, an additional $500-per-pupil expense annually for requirements such as salaries and technology, said Mark V. Joyce, the group's executive director.
"We don't quibble with all the noble intentions, but what we're seeing as the rules come out is extra costs shifting to states," he said. "We believe the sponsors of the bill don't understand the consequences, but are caught up in the noble intentions."
"Almost every state says there's going to be some added costs, but they don't have a really good handle on what [the law] will cost," said Michael Griffith, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States.
While Mr. Griffith was somewhat skeptical of the New Hampshire study's dire estimates, he said some rural states and places with few disadvantaged students could decide that the costs outweigh the benefits of the law, and might relinquish federal aid or seek waivers from the U.S. Department of Education.
"If it's as dramatic as what New Hampshire is talking about, you're going to see a lot of places opting out," he said. "This is a year when most states are hoping to be flat on education spending, but some are having to make reductions."
California's legislators, struggling with a budget hole that could total $30 billion in the next 18 months—out of a total annual budget of about $78 billion—have not had time to focus on the law, said Kevin Gordon, the executive director of the California Association of School Business Officials.
Privately, "a number of lawmakers have indicated the federal law is the least of their concerns in their very desperate effort to close the budget gap," he said.
Some smaller states are figuring out how much new computer systems will cost to help them analyze student data by subgroups, as the law requires. Maine has allotted $1.3 million for a data system but is unsure how much future costs might be, said Yellow Light Breen, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Education.
North Dakota state Superintendent Wayne Sanstead said the extra federal money may be sufficient to help his state pay for many of the changes required by the law. But the data analysis piece is a concern: "We're going to need some help in that arena," said Mr. Sanstead, whose governor has ordered 5-percent statewide budget reductions in the coming year's spending plan.
Meanwhile, Rep. David E. Heaton, a Republican state lawmaker in Iowa, said his constituents are so opposed to building a new state assessment that they might want to forgo federal funding if the law forces such an action. Iowa is currently the only state that does not have a statewide assessment. Instead, it uses district-level assessments.
"If the [state] money was still coming in like it was two years ago, we could have said 'goodbye' to the federal government," Mr. Heaton said. "Before this is through, we will put pressure on our members of Congress to change this law, and if times improve, we might say 'goodbye.' "
Several state legislators, who are just learning of the law's requirements as it goes into effect, confronted U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige about their concerns at a National Conference of State Legislatures meeting in Washington last month.
Mr. Paige, who emphasized the law's goal of helping disadvantaged children, says that the federal government has given adequate funding for its implementation.
"Some have characterized [the No Child Left Behind Act] as an unfunded mandate, and I think that's an inappropriate characterization—it provides funding at historic levels," Secretary Paige said.
But several legislators challenged his comments, saying their states were expecting to spend three or more times the federal government's contribution. "You made a statement it's not an unfunded mandate, but it certainly feels that way to many of us in the states," contended Rep. Gaye R. Symington, a Democratic state lawmaker from Vermont.
"These tests are paid for by federal funds; the funds are there," Mr. Paige replied.
The secretary had strong words for states that might consider supplanting state funds with new federal money. "The law is very clear—the money is there to supplement, not supplant," he said.
That still did not sit well with Ms. Symington, who said Vermont had already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in its 1997 overhaul of its accountability and school finance laws, known as Act 60. Whether the federal government approves any parts of Vermont's efforts remains to be seen, she said.
"Now it feels like they're coming in with a mallet and asking us to join hands and hit ourselves over the head with the mallet," Ms. Symington said after Mr. Paige's remarks. "They're coming at us at a time when we least need it."
Staff Writer Alan Richard contributed to this report.
Vol. 22, Issue 16, Pages 16-17