Education Opinion

The Letter From: March 1, 2004 on Funding NCLB

June 19, 2008 5 min read
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What remains relevant from this letter in the March 1, 2004 issue of School Improvement Industry Week (SIIW)?

Policymakers, analysts and advocates have spent the last two months debating whether NCLB constitutes an “unfunded mandate” – imposing new federal requirements on states without providing commensurate federal resources.

The term has political utility for those who oppose NCLB, for reasons that have less to do with their fears of insufficient funding than their discomfort with being held accountable for failing to achieve basic levels of student performance. If people can be made to believe that the law is too expensive, they will dilute its performance requirements, and protect opponents from real education reform.

Like any good diversionary tactic, this one leverages real substantive disputes state Republicans have with the federal government – the under-funding of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and intrusion into policy areas reserved to states by the 10th Amendment.
Opponents of NCLB hope that by tapping into emotions surrounding these issues, they can split Republicans in state government from the Administration. After it becomes clear that more money will not be forthcoming, these groups will pressure their Republican Congressional delegations to join with Democratic opponents to weaken NCLB, and destroy the force behind our emerging industry.

As important as the cost of NCLB is to us, and the nation, it has become a game of “insider baseball” as analysts from left, right and center enter the fray.

The first wave of analyses - from the states, districts and unions, exemplified by the study for the state of Ohio - adopted a “brute force” approach to meeting NCLB requirements. These studies assume that if school districts will allocate resources in the same patterns used for a hundred years, it will cost countless hundreds of millions of dollars more to meet standards, on top of funds spent over the next decade on supplemental services for students from schools in need of improvement.

The second wave, a response to the first, assumes rapid radical changes in district operations. Perhaps the best example is the study done by AccountabilityWorks for the Education Leadership Council. Costs are determined by comparing NCLB with the costs of meeting earlier federal law. This wave agrees with the Administration that NCLB may be funded below levels authorized by Congress, but not less than needed to meet the law.

Respected education finance experts in the middle have mostly picked around the technical edges of the debate. The most sensible response was Vanderbilt Professor Jim Guthrie’s call in Education Week on February 11 for “a national, nonpartisan, technically proficient effort to construct a cost model for NCLB implementation.” This makes sense.

SIIW is certain the second wave studies are directionally correct. A nation that spends over $8,000 annually per student should be able to bring each to basic standards in reading and math; it is not likely to spend much more. But current cost studies lack balance or the appearance of balance. The sponsors of first and second wave studies have too much at stake to be credible beyond their followers; even if factually correct. We need studies that moderate policymakers and the informed public will believe.

A sound analysis of NCLB finance is not a mission to Mars. There are two kinds of costs: 1) compliance with NCLB performance requirements, such as those related to AYP or highly qualified teachers; and 2) the consequences of failure, including supplemental services and public school choice.

Some “consequences costs” are capped. A district need pay no more than 20% of Title I funds on choice transportation and supplemental services combined. If needs outpace funds, districts may favor low-income, low-performing students.

Other consequences costs are not certain. For example, students from schools identified for improvement must be offered a choice of schools. This may involve new costs. Moving a student to an existing public school with available space involves little cost. Enrolling that student in a charter or virtual school may cost more. Building a new school or sending the child to private school will cost a great deal more.

We have some sense of “compliance costs” - of achieving AYP requirements, for example. However, it seems obvious that the “brute force” approach to compliance of first wave studies is not only far too expensive, but unlikely to work. The definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result” applies here.

Doing things differently to meet NCLB requirements will impose real “transition costs.” Districts must be reorganized, school staff must be retrained, and a new culture must be nurtured. If districts could do this on their own, they would have. School systems need outside assistance.

In essence, they require Comprehensive School Reform (CSR) and its district equivalent. Change processes impose new expenses. In this regard, the Administration’s consistent defunding of CSR is a real mystery, unless vouchers are its preferred option when public schools fail to meet NCLB (unlikely) or it has not focused on schools that want to change but need real help (plausible).

Here we have more than six years of experience with literally thousand of schools, indicating a per school cost of $60-250,000 annually for each of three years, and a lesser fee for continuing services to maintain quality, training and access to CSR models’ networks. These costs are on top of operating costs, although it is possible to defray much of this burden by eliminating activities, programs and positions that are inconsistent with a school’s model.

More radical reorganizations of districts are conceivable, but a credible cost study must look to scaling up changes in practice today - like CSR, chartering, school contracting, and virtual schooling. Particularly after the transition costs of compliance are taken into account, it is conceivable that an expert study of NCLB will find short run costs will run higher than reformers or the Administration would like to hear. It is even more likely that the study will establish long run costs far below the shocking sums opponents now hope will lead policymakers to weaken NCLB, or repeal it altogether.

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