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Report predicts tough times for Minnesota schools
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Under the two-year-old law, schools must prove all their students are making steady progress toward proficiency in reading and math by 2014. (Photo from the office of the Legislative Auditor)
A new report says the federal No Child Left Behind law will cost Minnesota and local school districts at least $39 million a year to implement. But the evaluation from the Office of the Legislative Auditor released Thursday says many significant costs are still unknown. That incomplete accounting left many lawmakers dissatisfied. It also appears to have done little to quiet the revolt brewing against the federal education law.

St. Paul, Minn. — Legislative Auditor James Nobles says the federal No Child Left Behind law has created some very real challenges for Minnesota schools. He estimates more than 80 percent of the state's elementary schools will fall short of the law's performance goals by 2014.

Nobles says the financial implications are also significant. For example, his evaluation shows state and local school districts will spend $19 million annually on new testing requirements. Another $20 million will go for tutoring and student transfers out of low-performing schools. But Nobles told the House Education Policy Committee his office was unable to tally all the costs of implementing the law. He said the report doesn't account for the cost of aligning curriculum, training teachers, helping struggling schools and boosting student test scores.

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Image James Nobles

"There's tremendous variation among the school districts as to how much realignment of curricula they need to do," Nobles said. "There's a good deal of debate of about how they will go about doing it. And so there are simply too many unknowns for us as an audit office to issue a report that would I think simply venture into speculation."

Many state lawmakers view No Child Left Behind as an under-funded and intrusive mandate. Republicans and Democrats are supporting legislation that would cut state ties to the federal requirements. A Senate committee approved the bill last week.

John Patterson, a co-author of the Legislative Auditor's report, says Minnesota is getting additional federal money to implement No Child Left Behind. But he says it might soon fall short of the actual costs. Patterson says opting out of the law comes with a price too.

"If opting out is to have a net positive impact for the state, the cost savings would have to approach and possibly exceed $200 million in order to offset the loss of federal funding," Patterson said.

Patterson says a survey of superintendents conducted for the report found deep concerns about the law, but less than 20 percent favored opting out. Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL- Roseville, says she thinks the state has no other choice.

"Two-hundred million is a drop in the bucket compared to what the cost will be and those unknowns are answered," Greiling said. "I'm very disappointed that this report didn't even attempt to answer how much this is going to cost. Other states have, and they've come out with over a billion dollars, a billion and a half."

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Image Cheri Pierson Yecke

Rep. Mark Olson, R-Big Lake, a sponsor of the opt-out bill in the House, says the report does not ease his concerns.

"There is no federal mandate that I'm aware of that's ever been fully funded, and a lot of them very significantly under funded," Olson said. "And then this report doesn't even give us the numbers on things we could give us numbers on."

Olson and other Republicans are at odds with Governor Pawlenty, who strongly supports No Child Left Behind. His education commissioner, Cheri Pierson Yecke, told lawmakers that the report shows no financial justification for retreating from the federal law. She says that discussion should end.

"I believe that No Child Left Behind is a tool that is leading to the next step and ensuring educational opportunities for all children," Yecke said. "And I believe that supporting the goals of No Child Left Behind puts us on the right side of history."

Yecke criticized the report for assuming the No Child Left Behind law and federal funding will not change over the next decade. She says she expects Congress will gives states more flexibility and more money in the coming years.

U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, DFL-Minn., is ready for changes soon. He's calling for hearings to revisit the law's testing mandates and funding levels. Dayton is not supporting state revolts against the law.

"It would be unfortunate if states had to take that action," Dayton said. "It would be only if the federal government fails to do what we should do first."

The No Child Left Behind Act is scheduled for congressional reauthorization in 2008.

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