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Sen. Byrd Wants Billions More for Education

Financially struggling states cannot possibly meet the many requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (search) without additional federal funding, according to a group of Democratic senators.

Sen. Robert Byrd (search), D-W.V., ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, this week filed an amendment to increase funding for the law by $6.1 billion, nearly 50 percent more than what Senate appropriators approved in subcommittee.

“Parents and teachers want their schools to be held accountable. They want every child to succeed. They're holding up their end of the bargain. Now it's time for the federal government to hold up its end of the bargain,” Byrd said during floor debate. Fellow Democratic Sens. Patty Murray of Washington, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Tom Daschle of South Dakota all supported Byrd's provision.

Senators are scheduled to vote on the amendment next week.

No Child Left Behind, signed into law in January 2002, seeks to ensure all students can read by the third grade, demands increased accountability from schools through mandated testing in grades 3 through 8 and offers students in failing schools the opportunity to attend a better one.

Under NCLB, schools must meet “adequate yearly progress” goals. They are graded on achievement broken down by subgroups of race, ethnicity, income, disability, and English proficiency, as well as the percentage of students having taken the test.

In a July 8 memo to Congress, Secretary of Education Rod Paige (search) was optimistic about the law’s impact.

“During my four decades working in education, I have never seen such meaningful and effective cooperation between federal, state and local officials,” Paige wrote, adding that the federal government has already made a substantial investment in the law.

“Total K-12 federal spending has already gone up $5.25 billion, or 30.4 percent, under No Child Left Behind,” Paige wrote.

But success has varied among the states, which are permitted a degree of flexibility and have submitted unique accountability plans approved by the Department of Education. 

In Florida, for instance, 87 percent, or roughly 2,500 schools, failed last year to meet one or more targets listed in the plan. In Delaware, 17 of the state’s 19 school districts missed the targets set by that state. In Minnesota, on the other hand, 92 percent of schools met the requirements.

While no conclusive study has been completed yet on the effectiveness of No Child Left Behind, observers have identified a number of problems.

State accreditation systems, such as the one instituted by Gov. Jeb Bush in Florida, do not match the federal requirements, say critics. Some Florida schools have received honor grades under the governor's system, but have failed to meet federal standards.

Another problem is that while NCLB provides some school choice, it does not insure that space in other schools will be available. In Chicago, for example, a quarter million pupils are eligible to transfer to higher performing schools, but only 5,000 spaces are available in those schools.

States have “real concerns about how schools are being held accountable," said Anjetta McQueen, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association (search), the nationwide teachers union that has expressed skepticism about No Child Left Behind.

McQueen said it doesn’t make sense to hold back funding while schools are failing because that makes it harder for them to improve.

“When you talk about adding money, we are just talking about adding money to bring it to the level in the act,” McQueen said. NCLB authorizes as much as $18.5 billion for funding in 2004.

But the program is not underfunded, argued Heritage Foundation (search) education expert Krista Kafer, who said that NCLB represents the first real commitment to stop kids from languishing in bad schools.  

"We've seen more federal funding than in any previous administration. We've seen a several billion dollar increase in funding," Kafer said, indicating that lawmakers who complain about education being underfunded are the same ones who complain about higher deficits.

"Since these guys think spending money means a commitment to education, if they are responsible lawmakers they should figure out where that money will come from," she said.

Kafer added that authorization levels are funding ceilings, not funding floors.

"Those are not starting points for funding," she said of the figures outlined in NCLB.

Kafer, who said NCLB has already demonstrated successes in using public school choice provisions and supplemental activities to improve students' skills, added that lawmakers will be hard-pressed to vote against the amendment since throwing money at the program appears to be the answer to poor school performance.

"The responsibility to educate all students to proficiency is ideally something that we should have been doing all along," she said. "But most states were already on that road. We should be able to expect that third graders read on the third-grade level regardless of No Child Left Behind."