Education law deemed no mandate

A federal auditing agency trumped critics of the No Child Left Behind Act when it concluded the 2001 education reform law was not a mandated financial burden on states.

The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said the act is “a well-known example” of a new federal law with significant cost implications for state and local governments, but ruled that it does not meet the definition of a mandate under the 1995 Unfunded Mandates Reform Act “because the requirements were a condition of federal financial assistance.”

The National Education Association filed a lawsuit claiming the law’s testing requirements to show student proficiency each year in reading and mathematics will impose costs on states ranging from $1.9 billion to $5.3 billion through 2008.

States have the option to accept or reject the federal funding, which totals more than $11 billion a year, so the law is not considered an unfunded mandate, the GAO concludes in a May 12 report to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

Education Secretary Rod Paige welcomed the ruling.

“The chorus of the ‘unfunded mandate’ has now been exposed for exactly what it is, a red herring trying to take focus off the true subject at hand: changing the way we do things so that every child in America is provided a quality education, regardless of her or his skin color, spoken accent or street address,” the secretary said.

Mr. Paige’s response was attacked as “shrill” and “irresponsible” by Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way, who said the GAO relies on “a strict and complicated legal definition” in the unfunded mandate statute to declare that No Child Left Behind is not an unfunded required expenditure for states.

“In order to meet NCLB requirements, states are forced to use their own state and local funds. If states do not abide by NCLB requirements, they will be denied the resources they need to keep educating children,” the group said. “This would be devastating to public schools in nearly every district in every state that rely on Title I dollars from the federal government.”

Mr. Paige said No Child Left Behind simply requires public schools to have children reading and doing math at grade level.

“I do not believe that is too much to ask, particularly given the $500 billion we spend every year at the state, local and national levels on K-12 education,” he said.

The GAO report, requested by Sen. George V. Voinovich, Ohio Republican and chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee on government management, says the National Conference of State Legislatures “listed No Child Left Behind as one of the most important statutes that was not identified as a federal mandate, but should have been.”

Fifteen state legislatures have bills, resolutions or studies that protest the law in one form or another, the report says.

“Some states claim that significant impacts resulting from No Child Left Behind may include the loss of funds if schools fail to make enough progress, extra costs for tutoring and teacher training, and costs associated with possible longer school days and summer school, all of which may be required to meet standards set by the act,” the report says.

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