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Published in Print: May 4, 2005, as Education Department Fines Texas for NCLB Violation

Education Department Fines Texas for NCLB Violation

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The U.S. Department of Education has fined President Bush’s home state for failing to comply with rules under his No Child Left Behind Act.

The department announced April 22 that it would withhold $444,000—or 4 percent—of Texas’ federal money for administration of the law because state officials failed to meet the deadline for informing parents of their right under the 3-year-old law to transfer their children out of struggling schools.

“We think this [penalty] is water under the bridge, and we need to move on,” Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, or TEA, said last week. “We’re hopeful that this should never be an issue again.”

Officials of the Bush administration said while they have used their authority to withhold federal education funds from states, they aren’t eager to do so again.

“Withholding is never our first choice,” said Kerri L. Briggs, a senior adviser to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. “It’s our hope that we won’t have to do this any more.”

In another closely watched NCLB matter, Texas and federal officials are still negotiating a resolution to the state’s decision to follow its own rules, rather than federal policy, in determining the proficiency of special education students under the federal law. After Texas granted the appeals of districts and schools that followed state special education law, 431 districts and 1,312 schools made adequately yearly progress, or AYP, that otherwise wouldn’t have done so under the NCLB rules ("Texas Stands Behind Own Testing Rule," March 9, 2005.)

Although neither side would predict that the Lone Star State would escape without punishment on the special education issue, both state and federal officials said that they had made progress toward a compromise at an April 20 meeting in Washington.

Not a Charm

Secretary Spellings notified Texas officials of the decision to withhold funding over the transfer-notification issue in an April 22 letter, which said Texas’ late notification was “a violation of the law for which TEA must be held accountable.”

It’s the third time that the federal Education Department has taken away a state’s administrative funds under Title I of the NCLB law for failure to comply with all of its mandates.

The department also has notified the District of Columbia that it intends to take away $120,000, or 25 percent, of the district’s administrative aid in the Title I program, which serves disadvantaged students. The standardized tests in the district aren’t aligned with its new academic content standards. The federal department is finalizing the formal notification that it will withhold the funds, said Susan Aspey, a department spokeswoman.

Similarly, in 2003, the department took away 25 percent of Georgia’s administrative funds—a total of $783,000—because its high school test was not aligned with the state’s content standards, as the federal law calls for. Later that year, the department reclaimed 10 percent of Minnesota’s administrative funds, or $112,000, because the state had used attendance data rather than test scores to determine AYP status.

The administration of the current President Bush has been more aggressive than its predecessors in withholding federal money from states for failing to follow rules of the 40-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which Congress reauthorized as the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. As championed by Mr. Bush, the current version of the law aims to produce gains in student achievement by increasing state and local accountability for results.

The Education Department has taken its stance, Ms. Briggs said, because the law specifically tells federal officials that they should take away aid when states fail to comply.

“This is part of our mandate from Congress,” she said. “They wanted us to be serious about implementation.”

One new clause in the law mandates that states are to lose 25 percent of their Title I administrative funds in egregious cases. A separate provision gives the U.S. education secretary discretion to decide the percentage to withhold for lesser violations.

Financial penalties aren’t the best way to deal with states that are struggling to carry out the law, an advocate for states said last week. Instead, federal officials should find ways to reward states that are fulfilling all their obligations under the law.

“In a way, they’re shooting themselves in the foot” by taking money away, said Scott Young, a senior policy analyst at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, which has been a critic of the NCLB law. “Incentives are always the best way to promote a reform and hold people accountable.”

Texas Case

In the Texas case, the state last year announced its AYP results on Sept. 27 and required schools to notify parents within three days if their children were eligible to transfer to other schools. Under the federal law, students are automatically entitled to attend another school in the district if their home school fails to make adequate progress for two straight years.

Because most Texas schools started the 2004-05 school year five weeks before the AYP results came out, the late notice violated the law’s requirement that parents be notified of their options before the school year begins, then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige wrote in a Jan. 19 letter to Texas officials.

That letter declared the federal department’s intention to withhold 4 percent of Texas’ administrative funds, pending the outcome of an appeal from the state.

In her Feb. 10 appeal, Texas Commissioner of Education Shirley Neeley wrote that federal officials hadn’t responded quickly enough to the state’s requests to allow schools to continue testing special education students under less-stringent state testing rules and still be labeled as achieving AYP under the federal law.

Secretary Spellings, in her letter last month, conceded that the talks had dragged on longer than planned, but said that state officials had never been “led to believe” that their plan would be accepted. They should have made contingency plans to release AYP data before schools opened, she wrote.

Vol. 24, Issue 34, Pages 27,31

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