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Published in Print: January 4, 2006, as Colo. Town Raises Taxes to Finance NCLB Withdrawal

Colo. Town Raises Taxes to Finance NCLB Withdrawal

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Residents of a Colorado town have decided they would rather pay more in taxes than force their tiny district to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

In what is believed to be the first voter referendum on the 4-year-old federal law, taxpayers in the 95-student Kit Carson school district narrowly approved a property-tax levy to replace the $25,000 in federal money the district will lose by dropping out of the law.

“It felt like the federal government had overstepped its bounds,” said Geoffrey Wolff, the president of the Kit Carson school board. “I believe in a limited federal involvement. They provide 3 percent of the money, and they want total control.”

While Kit Carson’s grant under the federal law is just 0.0001 percent of Congress’ $24.3 billion NCLB appropriation for the current school year, the district’s decision to pull out of the program symbolizes the debate over whether the law interferes with local school officials’ ability to set their own policies.

A reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the NCLB law imposes mandates in such areas as teacher qualifications and student progress toward achieving proficiency in specified subjects. Most of its strictest requirements apply to districts participating in the Title I program aimed at assisting disadvantaged children.

The Kit Carson levy passed narrowly, 104-97, on Nov. 8. The levy would have failed if voters had understood that the new property taxes would replace educational services that they had already paid for through their federal income taxes, said another school board member

“To me, it’s a double tax,” said Jean Johnson, the only member of the five-person board who opposed the levy. “We’ve already paid our federal taxes for No Child Left Behind. A lot of people were not aware of that.”

By a vote of 4-1 last month, the school board declined money from the federal program for the 2006-07 school year. The district expects to stay out of the program for at least five years, when voters will be asked to renew the special levy. Taxes will increase $5 a year on a home assessed at $150,000, for example, Mr. Wolff said.

Small Change

While other school boards have withdrawn from the NCLB law, apparently no other has asked voters to assess taxes on themselves to replace the federal revenue they lost by opting out.

Two districts in suburban Chicago and the Academy School District No. 20 in Colorado Springs, Colo., have withdrawn from the law in the past two school years. In another effort to deflect the federal law’s impact, districts in Vermont, Connecticut, and Virginia have shifted the way they allocate money under the law’s Title I program as a way to protect their schools from the sanctions they would face for failing to meet the law’s student-achievement goals. ("Wary Districts Shift or Forgo Federal Funds," Sept. 8, 2004.)

“What’s happening is people are beginning to understand this thing cannot work, and so they’re making adjustments,” said William J. Mathis, the superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Unit, a regional district made up of 11 school boards enrolling 2,000 students near Rutland, Vt., that changed the way it allocates Title I so its schools aren’t subjected to sanctions. “Each one of these is a stitch in the fabric. I think we’re going to see more of these.”

But it would be hard for many districts to forfeit NCLB dollars because the federal funds make up a larger portion of their budgets than is the case for Kit Carson and other small districts, said Patricia F. Sullivan, the president of the Center for Education Policy, a Washington research group that monitors the law.

“If it’s a small rural district,” she said, the law’s opponents can “galvanize a community against it.”

Unlikely Foes

Kit Carson might seem to be an unlikely candidate to withdraw from President Bush’s top K-12 policy initiative. Kit Carson County, located on Colorado’s border with Kansas, gave Mr. Bush 78 percent of its votes in the 2004 election, and all of the school board members are Republicans, Ms. Johnson said, although they run for office on nonpartisan ballots.

The K-12 district’s elementary school was named a national Blue Ribbon School under the NCLB program, and the district has never failed to make adequately yearly progress in student achievement under the law.

But Mr. Wolff questioned whether complying with the law’s many mandates was worth the $25,000 in federal support.

Some teachers, Mr. Wolff said, have course loads that include several subjects, including one that teaches physical education in elementary school, general science in middle school, and anatomy in high school. It would be too difficult for such teachers to be considered highly qualified in all those subjects, he said.

Despite having teachers who may not be considered highly qualified under the law, the district has met targets for adequate yearly progress under the law, Mr. Wolff said.

While Ms. Johnson, the dissenting board member, agrees that such rules are onerous for Kit Carson and other rural districts, she said that federal officials are committed to finding “common sense” solutions to problems that districts such as Kit Carson face in complying with NCLB.

“The object of No Child Left Behind is not to come after Kit Carson public schools,” Ms. Johnson said. “They have bigger fish to fry than a school that’s doing well.”

Vol. 25, Issue 16, Pages 3,9

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