Liberty County School District in Florida is running out of time. The district’s $9 million budget has been axed by more than a third since the 2007-08 school year, as federal stimulus money dried up and a tourism dip hurt tax revenue. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, all three schools in the 1,300-student district are labeled as failing and could lose federal funding unless every student passes standardized math and reading tests by 2014. Superintendent Sue Summers says she has no more slack. “If they cut $100,000 from my budget, I’ll have to cut something big,” she says. “I won’t be able to open schools. I won’t be able to provide transportation, or I won’t be able to provide lunches.”
When Barack Obama ran for President in 2008, he pledged to “fix” NCLB, the federal education act signed into law by George W. Bush in 2002 that aims to hold schools accountable for students’ academic performance. Congressional gridlock has halted his plans, leaving school districts across the nation in a state of uncertainty. At the same time, state budget cuts threaten to undermine districts’ efforts to carry out the rest of Obama’s education reforms. “These are blue times, sad times,” says Jack Jennings, a former general counsel for the House Education Committee. He calls the environment the worst for education funding since Ronald Reagan proposed abolishing the Education Dept. in the 1980s.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan says the current version of NCLB, which requires all students to pass standardized reading and math tests, encourages schools to dumb down their curriculum because it judges them on a rigid pass-fail system. Under the Administration’s plan, NCLB would be changed so districts get credit for student improvement and students would be tested in subjects in addition to reading and math. They’d also be judged on a broader set of criteria than standardized test scores.
The Administration wants Congress to take action on its suggested reforms before the start of the 2011-12 school year. The reason: Under the current version of NCLB, schools have to show that all students are proficient by 2014 or they risk losing federal funding. Duncan estimates that about 80 percent of schools—including those that are generally high-performing—are in danger of being labeled failing because of the system’s rigidity. Liberty, for instance, is considered a high-quality district by Florida but a failing one by the federal government. If Congress doesn’t approve a broad revamping of the legislation before this fall, Duncan says he’ll consider granting waivers to states with failing schools, so long as they agree to as-yet-unspecified reforms.
Republicans say Obama’s approach keeps the federal government too involved in education, and Duncan’s waivers-for-reforms plan amounts to an Administration power grab. They’ve proposed several alternatives to Obama’s plan, including one aimed at promoting the growth of charter schools. Another would reduce Washington’s involvement in education by eliminating half the federal programs under the current version of the act. “More and more Americans have recognized that this intrusion of the federal government has not helped, it has gotten in the way,” says John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who chairs the House Education Committee and co-sponsored both bills.
As federal lawmakers wrangle, state budget cuts are hindering other aspects of the Administration’s education reform plan. Duncan has dangled money in front of the states, especially through his $5 billion in Race to the Top grants, the biggest pool of discretionary federal education money in U.S. history. In part to qualify for the grant money, 43 states and the District of Columbia have agreed to new, more rigorous academic standards. Sixteen states have changed laws to make it easier to fire staff in low-performing schools, and 22 have enacted laws intended to improve teacher quality by, for instance, tying evaluations to student performance.
As budgets grow leaner, many school districts are more concerned about keeping their doors open than instituting reform. More than 220,000 teachers and other educators could lose their jobs in the 2011-12 school year, according to the American Association of School Administrators. Washington State cut $1.7 billion from this year’s education budget and, as a result, school districts will get $5 million, rather than $20 million, to help pay for a new teacher evaluation system tied to student performance. Florida’s Liberty County School District may have to eliminate some classroom teachers next year, according to Superintendent Summers.
Businesses say the slow pace of education reform is hurting their bottom lines. Intel (INTC), the world’s largest semiconductor maker, is having difficulty filling 2,895 U.S.-based engineering positions, according to an Intel spokeswoman. RightNow Technologies (RNOW), which helps businesses offer online and live-chat customer service, has to burn through about 100 résumés to find one person who has the necessary math, science, and computer training. “We need reform,” says Chief Executive Officer Greg Gianforte. “Without highly educated and motivated individuals, we don’t have a future.”