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Published in Print: May 28, 2003, as Department Levies $783,000 Title I Penalty on Ga.

Department Levies $783,000 Title I Penalty on Ga.

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The U.S. Department of Education has notified Georgia officials that it plans to withhold $783,000 in federal aid because the state has not fully met testing requirements dating back to 1994. If carried out, such action would mark the first time the federal agency has financially penalized a state for failing to comply with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

In a May 20 letter, Secretary of Education Rod Paige said the action was driven by Georgia's decision to delay starting high school end-of-course testing under the 1994 version of the ESEA. Federal officials had granted the state a two-year waiver—which ends in June—to ready the tests, which were part of Georgia's plans for compliance with the 1994 law.

"By not administering these end-of-course assessments this school year, Georgia has violated the terms of its timeline waiver," Secretary Paige said in the letter.

The $783,000 penalty represents 25 percent of Georgia's administrative funds under the $11.7 billion Title I program for disadvantaged students. Georgia officials had 10 days to respond and "show cause in writing" why the federal government should not take that action, Mr. Paige wrote.

The letter was issued just one day after the Education Department approved Georgia's accountability plans under the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001.

The secretary made clear that he had no alternative but to impose the sanction, given provisions mandating such action in the No Child Left Behind law, the most recent reauthorization of the ESEA.

In an interview last Friday, state Superintendent Kathy Cox said Georgia would contest the federal government's action, noting that the state's serious concerns about the tests and their implementation prompted the decision to delay. Ms. Cox, a Republican who took office in January, said she was unaware of the federally imposed deadline when the state board of education agreed in March to delay the tests for a year.

"We have 10 days to respond to this letter, and we're going to respond, and we're going to make our case," she said. "They do not have to interpret that timeline waiver as they are."

The federal government's decision was first reported last week in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and in Education Daily, a newsletter based in Washington.

'Law Is Clear'

In part because of frustration with lax compliance with standards and assessment requirements under the 1994 law, Congress wrote provisions into the No Child Left Behind Act requiring financial penalties for laggard states. Congress also set a firm deadline of April 8, 2002—90 days after President Bush signed the law—beyond which no state could be granted additional time to meet the 1994 requirements. In other words, the federal government cannot grant Georgia more time beyond its current waiver.

Georgia is one of many states to receive a timeline waiver for coming into full compliance with the testing requirements of the old law. Those assessments, the law said, were supposed to be in place by the 2000-01 school year. But with many states behind schedule, the Education Department negotiated separate timetables with each state. Some of those have already expired, but others end later this year or next.

Dan Langan, a spokesman for Secretary Paige, said the decision to withhold money from Georgia was made with some reluctance.

"It's not something that the secretary wanted to do, but he had no choice," he said. "The law is clear." That said, department officials have consistently stated that they will aggressively enforce the law.

Asked whether any other states are currently in the pipeline to lose federal funds, Mr. Langan said: "Not that I'm aware of at this point."

Ms. Cox said that she could not in good conscience administer the tests under the prescribed timeline.

"There were just huge issues with these end-of-course tests," she said. "We had been hearing for months about problems." Some of those questions concerned alignment with state standards. Ms. Cox also indicated concern that the tests as written would have no consequences for individual students.

"If you want valid results, you have to have it count for something," she said. "Our [state] board voted to delay implementation for a year. Next thing, we hear this is going to violate this timeline waiver ... unbeknownst to me."

Part of the problem has been dealing with high school testing requirements from the No Child Left Behind Act that complicate compliance with plans under the 1994 version of the ESEA, she said.

"We feel like we're getting caught [between the two laws]," she said.

Ms. Cox said losing $783,000 would be painful for her department, though she emphasized that it would not affect how much school systems receive.

"It's a substantial amount of money, and I take it seriously," she said. "On the other hand, what I do not want [is to do] something to the students of Georgia that has no benefit to them simply to satisfy the federal government."

Asked if the state might rethink its testing schedule, she replied: "I would not back down from that decision even now."

Secretary Paige noted in his letter that he understood the state's compliance problems predate the current Georgia leadership's tenure in office. But, the letter proceeds to explain, the law is the law.

"If Georgia cannot show cause, the Department ... must withhold Georgia's administrative funds," he wrote.

Vol. 22, Issue 38, Page 18

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