Federal

Federal Officials Threaten Texas Funding

By Lynn Olson & Erik W. Robelen — September 24, 2004 4 min read
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Federal officials may withhold up to $6.7 million from President Bush’s home state of Texas for failing to tell parents before the start of the school year whether their children’s schools are in need of improvement, as required by the No Child Left Behind Act.

“I don’t think that they’ve made any final decision, but they’re hinting,” Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said last week.

The U.S. Department of Education did not respond last week to repeated requests for comment.

Under the law, the department has the authority to hold back money for administering the federal Title I program if a state fails to meet any of the law’s requirements, until the secretary of education determines that they have been met.

Texas was scheduled to get the money late next month.

State officials have announced that Texas will not make final decisions about whether schools have made adequate yearly progress on students’ reading and mathematics test scores until the end of February.

In part, they said, that’s because the federal government did not approve final changes to the state’s accountability plan until July 29.

Texas is not the only state that has yet to notify parents about the status of their children’s schools. According to data collected by Education Week, 19 states had not released the lists of schools in need of improvement prior to the start of the current school year. (“Data Show Schools Making Progress on Federal Goals,” Sept. 8, 2004.)

But no state planned to release the results as late as Texas. Moreover, many of those states had already specified in the accountability plans approved by the federal government that they would not have final AYP determinations until later this fall, in part, because of timelines for receiving state test results.

Won’t Harm Schools?

Instead, some states promised to notify parents based on preliminary data, or they made it clear that only a small number of schools potentially would be affected by the delay.

Ms. Ratcliffe said that Texas should get the money eventually, once it releases the AYP results. Moreover, because only state administrative dollars are at stake, she noted, “it shouldn’t impact the schools. It will just mean that we will have to deal with it at our end.”

Texas officials have since told Raymond Simon, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in the U.S. Education Department, that they could provide districts with preliminary AYP data in mid-November, on a confidential basis.

At that time, the state could order schools that appeared to be in need of improvement to send a letter to parents letting them know that their children are eligible to transfer to a higher-performing school.

Ms. Ratcliffe said state officials have yet to hear back from the federal government about whether that timeline would satisfy the Education Department’s concerns.

She also noted that the school-transfer option applies only to schools receiving Title I money for disadvantaged children, “so the absolute maximum number of schools we could have in that category, if nobody improves [from last year], is 308 out of about 7,700 campuses in the state.”

‘Discrepancies’

Connecticut is among the other states that are late in identifying schools under the No Child Left Behind Act. That state actually tests elementary and middle school students in the fall, but encountered significant difficulties in the scoring provided last year by its new testing contractor, in turn causing delays in gauging the status of schools.

“I was not willing to release the results because we had caught what we thought were discrepancies and problems,” said Betty Sternberg, Connecticut’s commissioner of education.

The test results were eventually issued in June—about six months behind schedule—but the state doesn’t expect to be able to identify schools in need of improvement until next month.

“They did not say anything in regard to fining us,” Ms. Sternberg said of the federal government. “I think they understood we were really in an untenable situation, due to no fault of our own.”

In an Aug. 27 letter to Connecticut, Mr. Simon, the assistant secretary, spelled out the actions the state must take.

For one, Title I schools already in need of improvement and whose latest test scores would not change their status must continue to provide school choice and other options.

And if a school advances to the stage where it must provide supplemental services, the services must be available immediately once the state makes that determination next month.

Connecticut also must ensure that its districts have plans in place to offer school choice immediately to students in schools that may become eligible.

“Once Title I school identifications are made,” Mr. Simon wrote, “we expect that students will be able to transfer to their new schools as soon as possible, but no later than the start of the second semester.”

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