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St. Paul, Minn. — The No Child Left Behind law's underlying goal, closing the achievement gap between students of color and their white classmates, is widely applauded. The growing criticism, however, hinges on its unprecedented requirements for student testing, teacher training and accountability.
Sen. Leroy Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls, chairs the Senate Education Budget Division. He says complying with the federal law is simply too expensive, particularly when the state has no extra money.
"There has to be some greater flexibility on the part of these regulations that are being sent to us from the federal government, when states are financially strapped," says Stumpf.
Stumpf is sponsoring a largely symbolic resolution that asks Congress to waive all requirements of the law in Minnesota. Virginia is one of a handful of other states where lawmakers have passed similar resolutions. Utah is considering whether to forgo the federal funds linked to the law. Stumpf says he wants Minnesota exempted from the law, but he doesn't want to lose millions of dollars in federal aid.
"If the federal government would acknowledge that Minnesota is doing an excellent job in education, and would waive those requirements, we would go and continue to do an excellent job in education, because we believe in it. And we'd even have many improvements we could make and afford," says Stumpf.
Liberal and conservative legislators are lining up against No Child Left Behind. Sen. Michele Bachmann, R-Stillwater, has introduced a bill to cut all ties with the law and give up the money. Bachmann says many states are spending far more to implement the law than they receive in federal education funding. She also sees the requirements as a threat to the local control of schools.
"We really have a pretty good understanding on how to deal with education in Minnesota," Bachmann says. "I would prefer to see those decisions made here locally and within our state on education, and not hand over the reins of decision-making authority to the federal government."
A legislative auditor's report is expected early next month that will detail the state cost of No Child Left Behind.
Versions of the Stumpf and Bachmann bills have also been introduced in the House. But a key committee leader there appears less anxious to take up the debate. Rep. Barb Sykora, R-Excelsior, chairwoman of the House Education Policy Committee, says the state must help under-performing students.
"I don't like federal intrusion. On the other hand, I think they found something we weren't doing very well," says Sykora. "In the aggregate, we looked great. When you start to break it down, we were losing a lot of students."
Gov. Pawlenty has made No Child Left Behind a priority in his education agenda. His education commissioner, Cheri Pierson Yecke, says she's trying to work with the federal government to iron out any implementation problems.
For example, she says Minnesota has far fewer schools listed as not making "adequate yearly progress," because of flexibility approved by federal officials. Yecke says she doesn't want to give up on what she believes in a good law.
"If educators look at the tenets that support No Child Left Behind, the goals of No Child Left Behind are the goals of public education," says Yecke. "We don't want to see children falling through the cracks. It's the implementation that is challenging."
Yecke says she'll continue to push for more flexibility when she meets with U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige on Wednesday, when he visits Minnesota. She says the secretary's visit will include a private meeting with school superintendents to discuss the challenges of No Child Left Behind.