- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 4, 2005

RICHMOND — Seven state lawmakers have urged the nation’s top education official to act on Virginia’s request for waivers to some provisions of the federal school accountability law before the academic year begins.

The No Child Left Behind Act “has jeopardized our state’s progress by imposing rules and regulations that conflict with Virginia’s successful reforms,” legislators wrote in a letter Wednesday to U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.

“Given the rapid approach of the new school year and the high stakes for our schools, we believe it is imperative that you grant Virginia greater flexibility in implementing this law.”

In a telephone press conference, Delegate R. Steven Landes and state Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple touted the state’s Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, and said that No Child Left Behind Act undermines progress made under Virginia’s accountability system because schools that don’t make “adequate yearly progress” risk losing federal funding.

“SOL programs provide more resources for schools that are working to improve,” said Mrs. Whipple, Arlington County Democrat and a member of the Senate Health and Education Committee. “NCLB actually takes resources away from schools that are not meeting standards.”

Virginia enacted its SOL system in 1998 and has steadily increased its pass rates, so state education officials have complained that further improvement is tougher for Virginia than states that more recently adopted standardized testing.

In January, Virginia asked for waivers from certain provisions of the federal law, which seeks to have all students, regardless of race, poverty or disability, be proficient in reading and math by 2014. In June, the department rejected two waivers and granted four, which took effect immediately.

Among the four requests still pending is one seeking permission to provide tutoring to students in Title I schools before giving them the option of switching schools. Currently, the order is reversed in Title I schools, which have a high percentage of low-income students and receive federal funds to boost educational programs.

Mr. Landes, Augusta County Republican and the incoming chairman of the House Education Committee, said Virginia is willing to work with the U.S. Department of Education, but faced with what he considers continued inflexibility, the state could begin to look at its options, including “withdrawing from NCLB or something else.”

The General Assembly passed legislation this year requiring the state Board of Education to seek waivers to NCLB and calculate the state’s costs of implementing — or withdrawing from — the federal law, and report its findings by Oct. 1.

Mr. Landes said he thinks many General Assembly members are waiting for the cost figures before determining what further steps the state should take.

“Most localities get about 6 percent of their funds from the federal government,” and the state could look into ways to replace those funds, he said.

In addition to Mr. Landes and Mrs. Whipple, Delegate James H. Dillard II and state Sens. H. Russell Potts Jr., R. Edward Houck, Emmett W. Hanger Jr. and Harry B. Blevins signed Wednesday’s letter.

Virginia’s proposed changes to its accountability plan are complex and require a thorough review of the plan, which cannot be done in a short time, said Chad Colby, a spokesman with the U.S. Department of Education.

“It requires a very close look,” he said. “We expect an announcement soon.”

Virginia is among about 40 states requesting amendments or waivers to the federal law, according to Communities for Quality Education, a national education advocacy group that tracks and facilitates states’ efforts to reform NCLB.

Enacted in 2002, No Child Left Behind is considered one of the most significant federal education laws in 40 years. One of its goals is to improve the education of minority and low-income students, those with disabilities and those with limited English skills.

The law calls for students to be tested in math and reading in the third through eighth grades and once in high school, and it requires schools to show annual progress in test scores.

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