Giving voice to mounting frustration among state officials, the governor of Vermont says it might make sense for his state to reject $26 million in federal money rather than comply with the new education law President Bush engineered.
Gov. Howard Dean called the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act “a terribly flawed bill” in an interview late last month with an Associated Press reporter.
The Democrat said that Vermont would have to rebuild its comprehensive testing system to meet the requirements of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, the revision of the ESEA.Under the law, states must annually test all students in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 to qualify for federal aid aimed at helping needy students.
Vermont education officials say getting a new system right is fraught with uncertainty and could cost the state up to $10 million.
“It’s going to be incredibly expensive and require us to do our work all over again,” Gov. Dean said in the interview. “I don’t think the people who wrote this bill had much consideration for the taxpayers, because this is going to cost people all across this nation.”
Mr. Dean, who is weighing a run for the presidency in 2004, also criticized parts of the law concerning school prayer and military and postsecondary institutions’ access to student information, contending that those provisions overstep federal authority.
The governor was on vacation last week and could not be reached for comment, but the content of the AP report was confirmed by his spokeswoman, Susan Allen. She said the wire-service reporter got in touch with the governor after hearing about his dissatisfaction with the law.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education said he knew of no states that were threatening to opt out of the plan. And a spokesman for the National Governors’ Association said he knew of no other governors who had announced that they might forgo federal money allocated for education.
Ms. Allen said Gov. Dean was not advocating a unilateral rejection of the federal money. “If the [school] superintendents tell him to go ahead, he will move forward,” she said. “If they tell him they can’t do without the money, he won’t move forward.”
Vermont expects about $26 million in the coming school year from the ESEA’s largest program, Title I, or less than 3 percent of the state’s roughly $1 billion in school spending. Federal payments make up about 10 percent of that amount, however, and all of it could be jeopardized if the state decides against complying with the law.
The head of the Vermont Superintendents Association, Jeffrey Francis, said local leaders had not offered any advice to the governor, though it would be hard for them to wave goodbye to money earmarked for them.
“What the governor seems to be saying is that [the law] deserves a cost-benefit analysis at the state level,” Mr. Francis said. “To the extent that we learn about the implications of the law and are able to measure the costs of the law against the funds we’re likely to receive—that’s a reasonable context to view it in.”
Burden for Small States?
Other leaders around the state pointed to the special burdens that small states with thin tax bases and small school districts shoulder under the law. Vermont has about 110,000 students in public schools.
“Much of the law has an urban flair to it, and nothing really fits us,” said state Rep. Howard Crawford, a Republican who chairs the House education committee, echoing arguments that local and state officials made against parts of the bill for months before its passage late last year.
Officials at the state education department say they have met with the governor over the new law, so the contents of Mr. Dean’s criticisms were no surprise.
“The problem in the law is the language around the development of local assessments,” said H.W. “Bud” Meyers, the deputy commissioner of education, referring to the tests Vermont education officials hope will fill the gaps left by uniform state tests in grades 4, 8, and 10.
“It seems restrictive and does not accommodate the plans we already had in place.”
The department’s general counsel, William J. Reedy, said he had also raised concerns about a provision in the ESEA that requires reporting and monitoring of “constitutionally protected prayer” in the schools. Districts would have to report infringements on the right to pray, and states would have to ensure that they do so.
“It’s another problem the schools have to worry about, of which there are many in the legislation,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2002 edition of Education Week as Gov. Dean Questions Wisdom Of Accepting ESEA Money