Inadequate Funding Makes NCLB Worse

K-12 Testing

The administration likes to talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations and how this law fights that. But what about the hard bigotry of high expectations without adequate resources?
– Paul Houston, executive director, American Association of School Administrators


As the “No Child Left Behind” Act (NCLB) completes its first year, complaints are rapidly rising that the legislation is an unfunded mandate. In state after state, legislators argue that the added costs imposed on state budgets greatly exceed the funds the President and Congress provide. This comes just when states face severe fiscal crises that are leading to education spending cuts.


In response, a group of New Hampshire legislators has introduced a bill that “directs that general funds not be expended on the No Child Left Behind Act and that school districts are allowed to exempt themselves from the No Child Left Behind Act by majority vote.” Their rationale is the explicit statement in NCLB, “Nothing in this act [shall mandate a state] to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this act.”


When the federal funding issue was raised in Vermont, a representative of the U.S. Department of Education replied, “The act is paid for, and we are paying what we should be paying for.” Such an egregious “proof by assertion” may not stand up if legally challenged.


The most obvious cost in the new law is for federally mandated testing, which greatly increases the number of exams that must be produced and administered in most states. Other elements of the legislation, from elaborate data-keeping and reporting requirements to the costs of intervening in a growing percentage of public schools, are also important. David Shreve of the National Conference of State Legislatures calculated the real cost of the law will be $35 billion annually.


President Bush has maintained that his request for an additional $1 billion for Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, the law NCLB reauthorizes) for the coming fiscal year will be adequate noting that at some $12 billion, this will be the largest amount ever appropriated for Title I. However, his budget proposal also reduces funding for the rest of ESEA.


Critics of the President’s funding proposal, such as Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), an architect of the NCLB law, argued that the increase is both far less than needed and many billions short of the $18.5 billion authorized to be spent on Title I in the coming fiscal year. (Congress typically authorizes certain sums to be spent, then separately appropriates funds.) A group of 42 Democratic senators signed a letter calling on Bush to support a $7.7 billion increase in education spending for this year.


Kennedy commented, “Ask any American whether it’s more important to help schools hire more teachers or to give more tax breaks to millionaires, and the answer is clear.”


Pointing out that only 40 percent of eligible students are served by Title I, the National Association of State Boards of Education declared, “If the No Child Left Behind Act is to be a national education priority then it must be a national budget priority as well.”


Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) and 125 House co-sponsors, with the support of many education and civil rights groups, introduced a “Student Bill of Rights” to hold states accountable for providing adequate resources for schools. Some early proponents of NCLB had argued the proposal would force states to better fund schools serving low-income children. However, virtually all states are now cutting their education budgets in the face of economic recession and lower tax receipts.


State leaders also point out that the federal government, which pays 7 to 8 percent of public education costs, should not use its small share of funding to dictate to the states. As Kentucky Governor Paul Patton put it, “The financial commitment has not been as great as the control commitment.”


Some districts and states say that the cost of the law far exceeds the funding provided. The New Hampshire School Administrators Association says that fulfilling the law will cost an extra $575 per pupil per year to implement while the state will receive $77 per year per student.


William Mathis of the Vermont Society for the Improvement of Education reports that seven of ten states recently studied will have to increase their funding for school aid to meet NCLB requirements. Necessary increases range from a low of 24 percent in South Carolina to a high of 101 percent in Texas. (The report is in the May 2003 Phi Delta Kappan.)


The Society also analyzed what it would cost Vermont to meet the law’s requirement that all students attain the proficient level by 2014. It concluded that the law would require a minimum of $158.2 million in new expenditures while the federal government would provide a total of $51.6 million. In Vermont, 39 schools have been identified as “in need of improvement” (see story, p. 23). The state received $400,000 in school improvement funds, or about $10,000 per school - about the amount of extra money the Society estimated would be needed to ensure one student in poverty attains proficiency.


In addition to a simple lack of money, no state has an infrastructure in place to actually help large numbers of schools. Paul Weckstein of the Center for Law and Education explained, “There really isn’t a system to improve those schools, only counterproductive sanctions imposed from above.”