Vt. Districts Seek to Avoid Federal Consequences

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Three rural Vermont school systems are making an unusual attempt to avoid the penalties their schools face under the No Child Left Behind Act, through a deft shifting of the federal funding they receive under the Title I program.

Shirley Richardson, the principal of Hazen Union High School in Hardwick, Vt.

Shirley Richardson, the principal of Hazen Union High School in Hardwick, Vt., supports her district's decision to shift Title I funding from the school so it would not be subject to sanctions this year under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
—Photograph by Toby Talbot/AP

Officials of the three districts believe the move will allow them to put off, at least temporarily, the consequences provided for under the federal law for schools that fail to make "adequate yearly progress" on student test scores.

District administrators say they are not trying to shirk the federal mandate to improve their schools, nor are they rejecting the Title I money outright. They say they merely want to avoid what they view as overly harsh federal penalties that would prevent them from making academic strides on their own.

No 'Fast One'

By shifting federal Title I money, the school systems hope to fall instead under the potentially less serious consequences specified under Vermont's accountability program for non-Title I schools. Vermont, along with every other state, submitted such a plan to the U.S. Department of Education earlier this year to demonstrate how it would comply with the testing and accountability requirements of the No Child Left Behind law.

"We're not trying to pull a fast one on No Child Left Behind," said Leonard K. Brown, the superintendent of the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, a 1,500-student system in Rockingham, Vt. In Vermont, most schools and districts are overseen by supervisory unions, which have superintendents and oversee the administration in their school systems.

"I got asked, 'Do I perceive this as a bold move?'" Mr. Brown said. "No, this is very practical."

The funding switch has gained the approval of the Vermont Department of Education. But it is less clear what the reaction of federal education officials will be. And representatives from several national school administrators' groups said they had never heard of a district's attempt at such a Title I funding shift, and they weren't sure how likely it was that other districts might try it.

Patricia J. Sullivan, a deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said she was unaware of any Vermont-style approaches in districts elsewhere, though she said such a move could be an option for other rural schools grappling with the federal law.

Many urban districts could not shift Title I money as easily, she said, because their schools are more desperate for it, and less inclined to give it up.

"I would encourage districts to look for any opportunity to find flexibility in the law," said Ms. Sullivan, whose Washington organization represents state education agency officials.

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, asked about the Vermont situation during an online chat with educators and others on Sept. 24, said that the department was still studying it.

"It is our hope that school districts will invest this money wisely," Mr. Paige said of Title I funds. "We are taking a close look ... and expect to have an answer in the near future."

While the circumstances of the three Vermont districts vary, their strategies are similar. Each district is dropping the Title I designation at certain schools in their systems by reallocating federal Title I aid to other eligible schools.

Making that switch, school officials believe, will allow them to avoid some of the strict consequences spelled out under the No Child Left Behind Act for Title I schools that do not make adequate yearly progress—consequences that become tougher with each year that a school fails to satisfy the law.

One of the sanctions of greatest concern in Vermont involves the possibility that the districts will have to use as much as 20 percent of their overall Title I funding to pay for supplemental services, or to provide transportation for children who transfer out of schools that aren't meeting adequate progress for three straight years. Districts are required to make transfers to other public schools available to students at schools that don't make adequate progress for two or more consecutive years.

State Oversight

But the federal law requires states to design their own consequences for non-Title I schools that fail to show progress. Under Vermont's plan, the state education commissioner can recommend to the state board of education one or more of several steps for those schools, such as providing a district with continued technical assistance, changing the duties of the superintendent, or closing the school and requiring the district to pay students' tuition at another public or independent school.

The Windham district has reasons for preferring state oversight to federal consequences. The district receives about $860,000 annually in federal Title I aid, Mr. Brown said. Bellows Falls Middle School, one of its Title I schools, was identified by the state as having made insufficient progress. Thus, district officials say they would soon face the federal penalty of having to set aside 20 percent, or $170,000, of its overall Title I budget for supplemental services.

So Windham officials decided to move the portion of Title I funds Bellows Falls was receiving—about $100,000— to the district's five other Title I schools, Mr. Brown said. Bellows Falls will drop its Title I designation, and the district will face the state's accountability consequences, but not the potentially stringent federal ones.

Had the district been forced to set aside the $170,000 for supplemental services, other valuable Title I-funded programs would have lost out, Mr. Brown argued.

In the 4,000-student Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, administrators had similar worries about the supplemental-services mandate and responded with a similar reallocation of Title I money. Two district schools, Mount Anthony High School and Mount Anthony Middle School, were identified by the state as having failed to make adequate progress.

Dropping the Title I designation at the two schools should allow the district to avoid setting aside about $330,000 for supplemental services—a move that would have resulted in diminished Title I programs at the elementary school level, where they were most needed, district officials say.

"It was forcing us to borrow from Peter to pay Paul," said Helene M. Mellon, the system's assistant superintendent for curriculum.

Officials from the Windham and Southwest Vermont districts were uncertain how long the shuffling of Title I funding would allow them to avoid federal consequences. "If you're asking me to [suggest] a long-term solution, I don't have one," Mr. Brown said.

Meanwhile, Vermont's Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union shifted $10,000 in Title I funding away from Hazen Union High School, which the state had identified as not making adequate progress, to Title I schools serving lower grades.

Orleans officials were concerned the high school was on track to face some of the most serious consequences under the No Child Left Behind Act. In 2004-05, when it could be in its fourth year of inadequate progress, Hazen Union could have faced consequences such as having to reopen as a charter school, having the state take it over, or replacing school personnel, Orleans Superintendent Rebecca Young said.

With the funding shift, Hazen Union High now expects to face less drastic consequences as a non-Title I school under Vermont's accountability plan. "A punitive system was not going to help us," Hazen Union Principal Shirley Richardson said.

Bud Meyers, Vermont's deputy education commissioner for standards and assessments, emphasized that the districts' actions would not allow them to ignore federal requirements to show yearly progress.

While the school systems "may feel more comfortable dealing with the Vermont process," the state-imposed consequences would be "practically the same," he said.

Mr. Meyers said Vermont districts have a long history of reallocating Title I dollars to elementary schools, where they view that money as being most needed. The difference here is that the three school systems are shifting that money specifically to avoid the consequences of the No Child Left Behind law, he said.

As of last week, Vermont had not received any feedback from the U.S. Department of Education suggesting the districts' Title I funding shifts were not allowed, Mr. Meyers said. The districts came up with the idea by reading the language of the law, he said, and not through guidance from the state.

"It's the law," he said of the districts' move. "It's legal."

Vol. 23, Issue 5, Pages 1, 15

Published in Print: October 1, 2003, as Vt. Districts Seek to Avoid Federal Consequences
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