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Published in Print: June 9, 2004, as GAO: ‘No Child’ Law Is Not an ‘Unfunded Mandate’

GAO: ‘No Child’ Law Is Not an ‘Unfunded Mandate’

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Department of Education officials are lauding a federal report declaring that the No Child Left Behind Act is not an "unfunded mandate."

But the report from the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, isn’t the definitive answer in the debate over the true costs for states and districts to carry out the federal school improvement law, state officials say.

The GAO report "confirms something that we have said all along: No Child Left Behind is not an unfunded mandate," Ronald J. Tomalis, a counselor to Secretary of Education Rod Paige, said in a conference call with reporters late last month. "It has put a nail in the coffin of that canard."

Ronald J. Tomalis

State leaders say the report analyzes the act under a narrow and technical federal definition of an unfunded mandate and doesn’t take into account future costs of the 2½-year-old measure.

"Nobody can say whether it is an unfunded mandate," said Patricia F. Sullivan, the deputy director of advocacy and strategic alliances for the Council of Chief State School Officers. "It’s too soon, and the expensive part hasn’t come yet."

Sen. George V. Voinovich, R-Ohio, asked that the GAO examine several recent major federal enactments in light of the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act. That 1995 statute establishes procedural barriers to federal bills and proposed regulations if congressional researchers determine that they would cost state and local governments more than the amount Congress appropriates for them.

In a relatively brief discussion in its 97-page analysis of the unfunded-mandates act’s impact, the GAO says that the No Child Left Behind Act is not an unfunded mandate because states and districts participate as a condition of receiving federal aid, and that by definition, under the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act, such programs are not considered to fit that label.

But the report also notes that the education law and other measures "appeared to have potential financial impacts," even if they didn’t fit the 1995 law’s definition of an unfunded mandate.

The Education Department seized on the May 25 report as something that would put an end to the debate over whether the school law was an unfunded mandate.

"The chorus of the ‘unfunded mandate’ has now been exposed for exactly what it is—a red herring," Mr. Paige said in a statement late last month. "If states do not want federal support, they are not required to take the funds. It’s that simple."

Also, increased federal funding to implement the law is enough to cover the expenses of complying with the No Child Left Behind Act, said Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the department.

Federal spending on K-12 education has increased by 37.5 percent since the 2000-01 school year, according to the Education Department. But even those increases haven’t covered the new requirements facing schools, according to at least one advocate for the states.

In the past, federal programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which the No Child Left Behind Act reauthorized, had "very few rules or strings attached," said David L. Shreve, the education committee director of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "What has happened is the rules have changed, and it has a lot more strings."

Big Dollars?

The debate over the costs of the federal law was especially intense in recent state legislative sessions. Virginia’s Republican-led legislature passed a resolution declaring that the law would cost the state "literally millions of dollars that Virginia does not have." ("Debate Grows on True Costs of School Law," Feb. 4, 2004.) In Utah and other states, lawmakers considered opting out of the No Child Left Behind law because of the belief that compliance would cost too much. None of the bills passed, usually because the states decided that federal funding covers their costs.

But Ms. Sullivan and other state advocates said the ambitious school law’s final tab is still unknown.When all of the law’s requirements kick in, states will have a better idea of whether the federal government is covering all the associated costs, she said.

"We just don’t know what it’s going to cost to restructure hundreds of schools," she said, "and to make sure all teachers are highly qualified."

Vol. 23, Issue 39, Page 28

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