READING, Pa. — A small but growing number of school systems around the country are beginning to resist the demands of President Bush's signature education law, saying its efforts to raise student achievement are too costly and too cumbersome.
The school district here in Reading recently filed suit contending that Pennsylvania, in enforcing the federal law, had unfairly judged Reading's efforts to educate thousands of recent immigrants and unreasonably required the impoverished city to offer tutoring and other services for which there is no money.
In the presidential campaign, criticism of the law by Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, and other Democratic candidates has been drawing an enthusiastic response. School boards, Dr. Dean told a New Hampshire town meeting recently, call the law "no school boards left standing." Teachers call it "no behind left," he said.
"We're not trying to make a political statement, but this law can just overwhelm a school system's ability to meet its requirements, especially when a district is as financially stressed as we are," said Fred Gaige, a school board member. His school system has been struggling to comply with the law, he said, even as it flirts with bankruptcy because the local manufacturing economy is collapsing.
The law, known as No Child Left Behind and signed in January 2002, seeks to raise achievement by penalizing schools where test scores do not meet annual targets. It is the most sweeping plan to shake up public education in a generation, as well as the most intrusive federal intervention in local schools. But until recently it had provoked little more than grumbling, though polls showed that educators in most of the nation's 15,000 districts considered several of its requirements ill-conceived.
In recent weeks, however, three Connecticut school districts have rejected federal money rather than comply with the red tape that accompanies the law, and several Vermont districts have shifted federal poverty money away from schools to shield them from sanctions.
Republican lawmakers from the National Council of State Legislatures, who consider the law a violation of states' rights, took their complaints to the White House in November, where they got a chilly reception.
Now, several say they will press their case in their home states. A Republican legislator has introduced a bill that would prohibit Utah authorities from complying with the law or accepting the $100 million it would bring the state. Half a dozen other state legislatures have voted to study similar action.
Some analysts see the scattered actions as the front end of a backlash that will probably swell this year, when early penalties are likely to be imposed on thousands of schools across the nation.
"The signs all show that as the law takes effect at the local level it is going to cause a reaction," said Jack Jennings, director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, who is overseeing a nationwide study of how the law affects school districts. "This is not a crisis; these are just early flares of resistance. But next year the reaction could be sharper."
Under the law, every racial and demographic group in each school must meet rising goals on English and math tests to make "adequate yearly progress." If any group fails to reach targets for two years running, a school is labeled "needing improvement," and must provide transportation for students to transfer to higher-scoring schools or pay for tutoring. Continued shortfalls lead to escalating sanctions that culminate in removal of the staff.
It is an accountability system with myriad ways to disqualify schools. This year 26,000 of the nation's 93,000 public schools failed to make adequate yearly progress, according to a teachers union tally, fueling predictions that the law could eventually label nearly all schools as failing. Much opposition is based on the view that the law will require districts to spend large sums to remedy shortcomings in such schools, without full federal financing.
Eugene W. Hickok, acting deputy secretary of education, acknowledged that many educators were disenchanted with the law. "It exposes them and makes them nervous because it focuses on where the job is getting done," Dr. Hickok said. "But generally the American public likes the law's emphasis on accountability and results. Over all there's a lot of popular support."
Congress passed the law with overwhelming bipartisan support. Although a few resolutions requesting changes have surfaced in Congress, they have not garnered much momentum.
But in the presidential campaign, criticism of the law by Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, and other Democratic candidates has been drawing an enthusiastic response. School boards, Dr. Dean told a New Hampshire town meeting recently, call the law "no school boards left standing." Teachers call it "no behind left," he said.
One school that did not make adequate yearly progress this year was Somers High School in Connecticut, where 100 percent of students scored at or above the proficient level on the most recent reading test, and 99 percent on the math test. Only 94.3 percent of the sophomore class participated in the math test, however, which meant the school failed the requirement that 95 percent of students participate, causing the school to fall short of adequate yearly progress, said Thomas W. Jefferson, the Somers superintendent.
That shortfall has no consequence because the Somers Board of Education had already voted to reject $43,000 in federal financing.
Few districts across the nation could afford to give up federal aid, which in large urban districts amounts to tens of millions. But Dr. Jefferson said he believed Somers' action was viewed sympathetically by educators elsewhere.
"When the law was passed it looked positive and bipartisan," Dr. Jefferson said. "But as these regulations have become known there's a growing sense of outrage."
Two groups sent letters to Congress this fall urging lawmakers to stand fast against criticism of the law. The Business Roundtable, an organization of corporate chief executives, expressed "strong support for this landmark reform effort" and cautioned that "there are voices calling for measures that would take us backwards."
Joseph M. Tucci, president of the EMC Corporation and chairman of the group's education task force, said in an interview: "The law is about raising standards and closing achievement gaps. Is it perfect? No. But we've got to start somewhere."
In November, the Education Trust, a Washington group that helped write sections of the law, organized several dozen black and Hispanic educators to sign a letter to Congress that called the law "a huge step forward in the movement toward full participation in American democracy." The trust supports the requirement that test results be broken down to show how all demographic groups are faring, a measure aimed at exposing educational inequities.
Last year resentment toward the law largely focused on the way Washington seemed to be telling states how to make schools accountable, when many had successful homegrown programs. This year, rising frustration has shifted to money.
"The administration says the law is not an unfunded mandate, but many of us feel that it is," said Kory M. Holdaway, a Republican member of the Utah Legislature who, as chairman of the National Conference of State Legislatures' Committee on Education, voiced legislators' complaints to White House officials in a November meeting.
A survey by Public Agenda, an opinion research organization, found that almost 9 in 10 of the nation's school superintendents believed the law required them to undertake extensive initiatives — new tests, tutoring for struggling students — without enough money.
Outrage over that prospect this fall is what persuaded the Reading superintendent, Melissa Jamula, to recommend that the district file suit in December.
Reading is a city in distress. Factories are closing, and property tax revenue declined from $33.8 million to $22.3 million in eight years. The district spends about $2,000 less per student than the average Pennsylvania district. Spending has declined even as the school population has surged, with many new students requiring English instruction, Dr. Jamula said.
Thirteen of Reading's 19 schools either missed adequate yearly progress this year or were labeled as needing improvement. Although the district received at least $8.1 million in federal education money for this year, up from $4.9 million in 2001-2002, the increases have not kept pace with needs, partly because of Pennsylvania's budget crisis, Dr. Jamula said.
Keith Pierce, a spokesman, said the Pennsylvania Department of Education was prepared to defend itself legally. But he added: "They are really hurting, and when you couple that with all the requirements of the federal law, it's just a mess."
Richard L. Guida, the lawyer who drew up Reading's suit, voiced frustration with the law. "What if they told us to build all new school buildings?" he asked. "Well that'd be nice, but we can't afford that. This is not an `Ozzie and Harriet' environment here. Is the federal government going to wave a wand and all our problems are going to go away?"
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company