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States Rebelling Against No Child Left Behind

With Utah in the vanguard, about a dozen states are rebelling against President Bush's centerpiece education law, the No Child Left Behind Act (search), complaining it imposes costly new obligations without providing the money to carry them out.

The Republican-controlled Utah House voted 64-8 last week not to comply with any provisions for which the federal government has not supplied enough money. The bill, which now goes to the Senate, represents the strongest position yet taken by lawmakers around the country.

Elsewhere, lawmakers have passed or introduced legislation or nonbinding resolutions challenging the 2002 law's tougher standards for student testing and teacher credentials.

Many legislators are angry over what they see as a federal takeover of education that leaves states to pay the bill.

"We gradually give up our state sovereignty when we accept our tax money back into the state with strings attached to it," said Republican state Rep. Margaret Dayton of Utah.

Among other things, the No Child Left Behind Act requires virtually all students to test at their grade level for math and reading. Schools that do not measure up for two years in a row have to provide more tutoring or let students transfer to better schools.

The law also requires teachers to have a specialized training for every core subject they cover. But some schools, such as those in rural Utah, say they are lucky to attract any teachers at all.

Opposition to the No Child Left Behind Act has created some strange bedfellows, uniting GOP conservatives who resent what they regard as federal intrusion into a state area of responsibility; educators and liberals who object to standardized tests and more stringent teacher qualifications; and politicians from both parties who resent unfunded mandates, or federal initiatives that are not backed with enough money, in such areas as health care, welfare and homeland security.

The government insists it is providing enough money to meet the requirements of the law. But many states dispute that.

William Mathis, a local school superintendent and education finance professor in Vermont, reviewed cost estimates drawn up by 18 states and found that they need, on average, 28 percent more a year than they are getting from the government to meet the law's requirements.

Federal aid to local school districts totals $32 billion a year, up from $24 billion before No Child Left Behind was signed into law in 2002.

In Utah, state School Superintendent Steven O. Laing said full compliance could cost Utah $1 billion a year, or about 10 times more than the state receives in federal funding for the program.

David Shreve, an education adviser to the National Conference of State Legislatures (search), called the law an example of Congress passing a lofty piece of legislation and leaving states and local educators with the messy reality of trying to comply.

"We can't pass a law here and wave a magic wand and drop some fairy dust and make it happen," Shreve said.

Other states protesting the law include:

—Virginia, where the GOP-controlled House of Delegates approved in a 98-1 vote last month a resolution calling on Congress to exempt Virginia without penalty from "the most sweeping intrusions into state and local control of education in the history of the United States."

—Hawaii, where lawmakers approved a resolution last year asking state education administrators to consider giving up No Child Left Behind funding until Congress provides more money.

— New Hampshire, where state officials are fighting the U.S. Education Department over who pays for student testing after legislators reduced state funding for testing to just $1.

— Arizona and New Mexico, where lawmakers earlier this month introduced legislation to exempt their states from No Child Left Behind.

— Vermont, which passed a law last June prohibiting school districts from incurring any costs under No Child Left Behind that are not paid for by the federal government. So far, five Vermont districts have said no thanks to the program, giving up small amounts of federal assistance.

At the 78-student high school in Dongola, Ill., Superintendent William Mowser said he will give up $16,000 in federal funds rather than grant 116 students' wish to attend a better school nine miles away where they can learn Spanish and other specialties. That would cost $230,000, he said.

Federal officials had put on a full-court press at the Utah Capitol, trying to salvage support for the law, and warned the state it could lose its annual federal education funding, or nearly $107 million.

Ron Tomalis, who oversees elementary and secondary education for the U.S. Education Department, said the law provides enough money to Utah. As for complaints of federal intrusion, he said the law gives states great flexibility to set academic standards and testing procedures.

"The law doesn't lack funding," agreed Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Education & Workforce Committee. He said the only thing lacking is will on the part of school districts.