President George W. Bush this week signs into law the domestic policy centerpiece of his first term agenda, an education spending reauthorization that sponsors say will bring the most dramatic overhaul of U.S. public schools since the first Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)took effect in 1965.
The $26.5 billion bill won final congressional passage days before Congress recessed for Christmas. One of its goals is to close the gap in classroom performance and test scores between poor minorities and kids for whom English is a second language and their more affluent classmates. Although federal money represents just seven percent of state and local school budgets, the federal share increases in low-income areas.
States are wary of some of the costly requirements in the new law, especially at a time when state revenues are in a nosedive. The bill provides up to $490 million for testing, a fraction of the $2 billion to $7 billion that some experts estimate the expanded testing will cost.
"There is less money in state budgets and the bill requires states to test more - it is going to be the biggest challenge for Governors trying to meet the requirements of this new law,"says Dale Linn, education policy director of the National Governors' Association.
However, governors, state legislators and education officials like other aspects of the bill. These include:
Controversial aspects of the new law include, first and foremost, its testing mandate."This comes at a time when Montana can ill-afford to spend additional revenues on testing... it could bankrupt our state's schools and divert preciously needed resources away from the real needs of Montana's children, " state superintendent of public education Linda McCulloch told the Missoulian.
The bill requires every public school to test third through eighth graders in reading and math annually. Every public school student must be tested again sometime in high school. School systems will be required to compile and publish detailed reports on each child's progress and break down the test results by school, ethnicity and income level by 2005.
For the first time, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a heretofore voluntary achievement test given by the US Department of Education, will become mandatory in every state.
No money was set aside to help states create databanks to store the testing and student information required in the new law. The bill also fails to provide the long-promised 40 percent federal share of the cost of educating students with disabilities. And some state legislators believe it usurps their authority because it allows the federal secretary of education to make agreements directly with state education agencies and school districts.
"Try and find another federal program where a federal executive enters into agreement with somebody other than the legislature or the governor. If you want to talk about federal intrusion into local schools that has got to be the king of them all," says David Shreve, an official of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
Under the new law, states will have 12 years to improve student performance. But it remains to be seen what will happen if they don't. Most states were able to get waivers when Congress tried to force school reforms in 1994.
"They (Feds) still haven't enforced the 1994 ESEA that called for testing in three grades and that is the foundation for increasing the testing to every year in 3-8," Shreve told Stateline.org.