Monday, March 03, 2008

Virginia considers leaving federal education act behind


The General Assembly is flirting with abandoning a landmark federal law that governs schools in the United States.

The decision could make Virginia the first state to set a deadline – summer 2009 – for planning a pullout from the No Child Left Behind Act, which ties billions of dollars to federally mandated testing standards in public schools.

State politicians have balked at some of those standards in the past few years. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has signed bills asking the U.S. Department of Education to waive parts of the federal law.

Most of those exemptions were granted, but the notable ones that have not been approved frustrate educators and annoy legislators.

This year, some politicians want to up the ante.

Both the Senate and the House of Delegates are working with bills that say that if the state’s waiver requests aren’t granted, Virginia’s Board of Education would develop a plan to withdraw from NCLB by July 2009. Delegates have approved the bills, even adding language to one seeking to recoup federal tax money if the state withdraws.

Senators keep deleting the deadline, leaving the bills – SB490 and HB1425 – more open-ended. Legislators from both chambers will have to negotiate a compromise for a bill with a deadline to make it to the governor’s desk.

Kaine hasn’t said what he would do with the measure, which could cost Virginia more than $350 million a year in federal aid.

Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, the bill ’s sponsor in the House, said that now is an opportune time to take a stand, with the NCLB law up for renewal and a new president taking office in January 2009 .

“We’ve done everything we can think to do,” said Landes, who has pushed the issue along with Sen. Emmett Hanger Jr., R-Augusta. “We’re at the point … this is it, we’ll move forward on a plan to get out unless you provide the relief.”

The brinkmanship in Virginia is typical of the friction NCLB has caused nationally, said David Shreve, federal affairs counsel for education for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Shreve said he thinks Virginia would be the first state to set a formal deadline to pull out of the law.

States from Utah to New York have asked for “flexibility” from the law to avoid failing certain standards. Exemptions, sometimes technical in nature and hidden from public discussion, often are granted, Shreve said. But the need for waivers highlights fundamental flaws in the law, Shreve added.

“To save the beast, they’ve allowed everybody to take chunks out of it,” he said. “Sort of like putting a turbocharger on a Yugo. You’ve solved a problem of getting faster, but you haven’t solved the problem of the Yugo being a car that sometimes spontaneously disassembles.”

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education could not be reached for comment.

Some of Virginia’s issues with NCLB are tied to testing of subgroups, educational jargon for small populations of students.

NCLB holds the small groups to the same benchmarks as the total population so deficiencies in smaller samples aren’t masked by a school’s overall success.

In South Hampton Roads, for example, schools may meet standards as a whole but have lower scores for special education students.

In 2007, 30 out of 215 schools in the region’s five cities didn’t meet federal benchmarks for NCLB. Twenty-four schools missed a mark for special education students.

Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, said the attention NCLB gave to subgroups was important to ensure all students receive the best education.

Still, Virginia was rebuffed last year in its attempt to exempt for two years the test scores of some limited-English proficiency students. The results for a student in the country for less than a year can be exempted, Pyle said.

The state fared slightly better in asking for the right to

reverse the sanctions imposed in the first two years a school fails to meet the testing standard.

The penalties apply to schools that receive federal money set aside for low-income students. Parents in those schools must be given the choice to move their child to another school if their home school is marked for two years as not making “adequate yearly progress.”

If scores don’t improve enough the following year, the school must provide tutoring or other added services.

Virginia asked to reverse the order, saying it made more sense to tutor students and test them again before giving parents the option to change schools. The U.S. Department of Education let the state do it in seven districts, including in Hampton and Newport News.

Pyle said state Board of Education members have “felt fairly strongly about policy decisions” but would not develop any plans to withdraw from NCLB without the prodding of politicians.

“The legislature is expressing the same kind of frustration the Board of Education has expressed,” Pyle said. “Not an objection to accountability, but a desire to have more flexibility.”

That flexibility, however, comes at a price .

In fiscal 2007, the state received nearly $352 million in NCLB money . In fiscal 2008, the state expects just shy of $364 million.

“If we could pull out and have the money … to do the thing we need to in Virginia, fine,” said Princess Moss, president of the Virginia Education Association. “But show me the money.”

Del. Phil Hamilton, R-Newport News, said it is implausible to expect the federal government to let the state keep any NCLB money without adhering to its strict benchmarks.

Hamilton, a state budget negotiator, was one of five House members who vote d against SB490, the measure that would set the state’s ultimatum for withdrawal from NCLB.

Del. Robert Tata, R-Virginia Beach, said the withdrawal from NCLB might lessen the need for funding, making the budget loss “a wash, I guess.”

Landes said the mere discussion of pulling out gives state education leaders leverage in negotiations with their federal peers.

The delayed date to plan a withdrawal – summer 2009 – also gives officials a chance to gauge the law’s future.

Congress could reauthorize a more state-friendly NCLB measure. Federal education officials could grant Virginia’s waivers and make the argument moot. Or next year’s General Assembly could repeal any action taken by this year’s.

“This one is definitely different,” said Gordon Hickey, the governor’s spokesman. “We’ll see what happens.”

Richard Quinn, (757) 222-5119,

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