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Who’s left behind?

Is it an impossible dream? Can school districts, with help from Congress, adequately fund the No Child Left Behind Act? And, if the money is found, can every student achieve the academic requirements of the act?

While the act — proposed by the Bush administration two years ago — may be of some use to educators, the reality for South Whidbey and the nation’s schools is that No Child Left Behind imposes tough and costly rules on schools that are not fully funded by the federal government.

Critics refer to No Child Left Behind as an unfunded mandate that shifts more burden to districts already struggling with deficits. Educators and lawmakers support the goals of the act but say without adequate funding achieving the mandates is impossible.

“It is a positive concept,” said Martin Laster, superintendent of the South Whidbey School district. “But we have less money while the costs associated with the bill are significant.

This month is the second anniversary of the passage of No Child Left Behind, which was signed by President George W. Bush in 2002. While the law demands100 percent accountability, it does not offer 100 percent funding. According to information provided by the president’s 2004 budget, No Child Left Behind is underfunded by $9 billion.

The South Whidbey School District received $405,000 in No Child Left Behind money in 2002-03 and $401,000 in 2003-04. Little of this is new money — the amount received by the district during the past two years is similar to that received previously under the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Frustrated by what he sees as the Bush administration’s failure to fully fund No Child Left Behind, Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) gave the Bush administration a C minus on how it implemented the act.

“They have authorized funding for only 73 percent of the mandates in the act,” Larsen said this week. “They have taken a bipartisan bill and refused to fund it. This is a time when schools and kids deserve an A..”

Last year Larsen supported an amendment that failed to prohibit the Department of Education from penalizing districts that fail to meet the standards.

Closer to home, Helen Price-Johnson, president of the South Whidbey Board of Education, finds the act worthy but short of federal backing.

“The challenge for school boards is to find the money,” she said. “We are held to the mandates, but we’re not given the funds.”

Kim Schmanke, a spokesperson for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said assessing the total cost of No Child Left Behind is difficult even two years into its implementation.

“It is still being implemented and we cannot assess all the costs to the state at this time,” Schmanke said.

Act sets the standards

By 2014, the law will require 100 percent of the nation’s students to meet predetermined levels of proficiency in math, reading, science and writing. In the mind of South Whidbey’s assistant superintendent, Dan Blanton, this is an impossible goal.

“It says 100 percent of all students have to achieve academic proficiency. It is unrealistic,” he said.

In addition to pointing to the lack of funding for required programs, No Child Left Behind critics in the South Whidbey district also find fault with the act’s one-size-fits-all formula. This is particularly frustrating to second- grade teacher Lynn James.

“The act is so unrealistic,” James said. “It’s obvious the people involved in writing the act in Washington D.C. have never taught in a classroom.”

She said the act ignores a basic fact known to generations of teachers — that not all students are capable of equal achievement.

“It is a fact of teaching that sometimes no matter what we do, some kids won’t be on grade level,” she said. “We try to do everything possible to help each child achieve... but the feds continue to raise the bar which will leave some children behind their peers.”

Currently, the academic progress of Washington state students is judged through their scores on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL. The test — given to fourth-, seventh- and 10th-grade students — assesses their reading, writing, math and listening skills.

By 2005-06, students in grades, three, five, six and eight must take reading and math assessments. For development of the new tests, the state has received $14.5 million in federal money over the past two years. Successful completion of the reading, writing, mathematics assessments on the test will become a statewide high school graduation requirement in 2008

Act punishes with money, paperwork

At its core, No Child Left Behind can be seen as a punitive program. If schools fail to meet the academic standards set by the act over two consecutive years, they must allow their students to transfer to other, higher-performing public schools if they wish. Five years of failure can prompt the federal government to close a struggling school.

On top of all this, federal funding for programs required in schools by the act can be withdrawn for poor performance. Assistant Superintendent Blanton said there is no logic in this stance.

“Without funds, how do they improve?” he said.

Not all the costs of No Child Left Behind are incurred in the classroom. For school administrators, the law means additional paperwork. The reporting and record-keeping requirements for No Child Left Behind fall on Blanton and Diane Watson, the school district’s Special Services director.

Blanton said this burden is by design. He said he tries to insulate teachers as much as possible from the paperwork by taking care of it at the district’s administrative office.

“Their job is with the students in the classroom,” he said.

Blanton is not entirely opposed to the act. He said he supports setting high standards for students, particularly at the high school level. Students entering the ninth grade this coming fall will be the first class required to meet enhanced graduation requirements, including passing the 10th-grade WASL.

“We need to help them succeed,” Blanton said.

But Blanton said if there is one law for all public schools, there should be one standardized test.

“As it stands now, each state is responsible for developing its own tests and setting academic standards,” he said.

States can achieve higher numbers on paper by “dumbing down: the tests, Blanton said, or by just testing higher achieving students.

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