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Point of View

by frederick lane '88

Leaving Our Schools Behind
Lack of Funds Continues to Hurt Education

Although I grew up and went to school south of Boston, I feel a connection to the Edmunds School in Burlington, Vermont. For years, I took the Greyhound bus north to visit my grandmother, Claire Mullen, who was an English teacher and librarian there. More recently, I became an Edmunds Middle School parent when my son Ben entered sixth grade. And as a member of the Burlington School Board, the school is part of the district system that I help oversee.

The century-old school, with its sweeping views of Lake Champlain, is facing an uncertain future. In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The law, a centerpiece of Bush’s domestic agenda, was enacted “to close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no child is left behind.” But as the law is currently being implemented, the more likely outcome is that hundreds, if not thousands of schools will be left behind.

The central concept of NCLB is to link federal funding with accountability. It’s an approach Congress has used in the past: highway funds were predicated on a state drinking age of twenty-one (the last stubborn holdout, interestingly, was Texas), and more recently, internet subsidies were linked to the installation of filters in schools and libraries. In order to continue receiving federal funds for educational programs, each school district in the country must conduct annual standardized testing in core subjects, certify by the end of the 2005–2006 school year that its teachers of core subjects are “highly qualified,” demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in all demographic groups, and show 100 percent student proficiency in core subjects by 2014.

AYP is quickly becoming the ruler with which school district knuckles are being rapped. If a school fails to show AYP for even a single demographic group in a given year, it triggers supervision provisions in NCLB. Just two years of insufficient AYP is enough to initiate public school choice within the school district, and five years can shut down a school for good. The challenge is that many of the targeted demographic groups (children with disabilities, students learning English as a second language, and students requiring free and reduced lunch) have enormous hurdles to overcome in order to perform well on standardized tests.

In Vermont, the results of the first year’s testing are in, and four of Burlington’s schools made the so-called “watch list”—the designation for schools that failed to show 100 percent AYP in a particular year. Edmunds Middle School, like the other schools in the district, actually did quite well; in fact, Edmunds only failed to demonstrate AYP in a single demographic subgroup. Nonetheless, the monitoring provisions of NCLB have been triggered and the consequences grow rapidly severe if there’s a similar near-miss next year.

Like most school districts, Burlington receives federal funds under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The purpose of Title I is to improve the quality of education in high-poverty schools and and/or give additional help to students who need it. This year, Burlington received roughly $2.1 million in Title I funds. If even a single Burlington school on the watch list misses the AYP for a second year, then Burlington must set aside 20 percent (roughly $435,000) of its Title I funds to provide individualized, private tutoring for the students in the demographic(s) that did not show adequate progress. In addition, the students in the so-called “failing” schools will have the opportunity to transfer to any other comparable school in the district.

Burlington can ill afford to set aside such a large sum for individualized tutoring. The Bush administration has said repeatedly that it would provide adequate funds under NCLB to cover the increased costs, but the reality is the administration has not requested the funding and Congress has not taken steps to fill the gap.

Across the state of Vermont, two-thirds of the school districts had at least one school that failed to show AYP in one or more demographic groups, and most superintendents are pessimistic about the ability of schools to meet NCLB’s aggressive goals. As Burlington Superintendent Lyman Amsden has argued on numerous occasions, the factors affecting test results—facility with English or learning in general, support at home, even attendance—may well be beyond the power of a single school or even district to correct.

Certainly, quality education is of enormous importance to this nation. NCLB was drafted in response to overwhelming evidence that the United States faces an educational deficit that threatens its continued ability to compete effectively in the global economy. In December, for instance, a study was released showing US children trailing other industrialized nations in mathematics.

However, I believe strongly that the support given to NCLB by Congress and the Bush administration are inconsistent with the law’s purported goals. Without sufficient funding, NCLB will bring many school systems to a grinding halt. Given the law’s back door approach to school choice, the specter of school takeovers, and the potential purging of large numbers of educational professionals, it is difficult not to see the underfunding of NCLB as more a conscious political strategy than educational reform.

The more immediate issue, however, is that if the district is required to redirect a portion of an already insufficient pool of federal resources, its ability to accomplish the goal of basic quality education for all students will be significantly compromised. Efforts by the federal government to expand its jurisdiction over local schools like my son’s through NCLB will be disastrous if not accompanied by the funding needed to meet the law’s extremely rigorous (and rigid) standards. Yet again, Washington should realize that if it wants to be a partner in education, it must bring adequate resources to the partnership.

Frederick Lane is the author of Obscene Profits (Routledge 2000) and The Naked Employee (Amacom 2003).