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Vermont Governor Considers Rejecting Federal Funds
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As requirements for the federal education law start to kick in, Vermont governor Howard Dean is asking whether the cost of compliance is greater than the $53.7 million in federal money affected by the No Child Left Behind Act that the state receives. That includes about $21.4 million in Title I funds. If it is, Vermont may be better off rejecting the money and retaining its own assessment procedures, Dean told Education World. Included: A description of why Dean proposes turning down certain federal aid.

Saying that the cost of retooling state education assessments to meet federal education requirements could exceed the state's federal education allocation and expressing concern about stipulations in the federal law, Vermont governor Howard Dean is considering rejecting federal aid rather than complying with the requirements.

Vermont currently receives about $53.7 million in federal aid -- including $21.4 million in Title I money plus other federal grants and assistance -- that will be affected by the No Child Left Behind Act.

"[To redo our current assessment structure] could cost us two to three times as much as we get in federal Title I money," Dean told Education World. "It would cost [Vermont] taxpayers an incredible amount of money to do what we already are doing."

Dean, a Democrat who is considering running for president in 2004, is the first governor to propose turning down federal money to avoid some of the requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Dean plans to meet with the state's 64 school superintendents May 16 and 17 to discuss the proposal and determine whether it is affordable. If the state does opt to turn down federal money, towns would have to raise property taxes to cover the difference, according to Dean. The amount of additional money the state would have to spend if it does accept federal money still is unclear.

The final decision on whether to reject federal money is in the hands of the state legislature, which will not have time to render a decision before the session concludes at the end of this month. The next session begins the first week in January 2003; a decision then would affect the $53.7 million.

Susan Allen, a spokeswoman for the governor's office, said Dean has received mostly positive feedback about his proposal, primarily from people in other states. "They are not going as far as turning down money, but they are glad we are speaking up," Allen said.

Dean also has expressed concerns about other provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. One provision requires secondary schools to give colleges and military recruiters access to students' names, addresses, and telephone numbers. Parents could opt out of this, according to William Reedy, general counsel for the Vermont Department of Education.

Another aspect of the law Dean has said he finds troubling would require local school districts to report to the state education agency any policies that would prevent them from following federal guidance on providing "constitutionally protected" prayer. Failure to adhere to federal guidance on that type of prayer could affect a school's federal funding, Reedy said.


Another part of the problem in applying the No Child Left Behind Act, which Dean called "incredibly top down and intrusive," is that Vermont, like many states, already has assessment systems in place, Dean said. Vermont tests students in fourth, eighth, and tenth grades; the federal law requires testing in third through eighth grades.

Standards for the 100,000 public schoolchildren in Vermont deliberately were set high; therefore, not all schools are meeting them. Under federal law, those schools could be labeled "failing schools" as early as this fall, Dean said. Districts in which schools fail to improve after several years are in jeopardy of losing federal money. Redoing the tests could yield more passing students and fewer failing schools but result in easier tests.

"They would be rewarding us [with federal money] for dumbing-down the schools," Dean noted.

For more information about the No Child Left Behind Act, see No Child Left Behind: What It Means to You.


The U.S. Department of Education has taken note of Dean's proposal. Speaking at the annual Education Writers Association conference in Washington, D.C., in April, Secretary of Education Rod Paige said Dean was willing to turn down federal money because he did not want to test students.

"This tells me they don't want to know how their students are doing, and they must have an awful lot of money in Vermont, and they don't need it for their neediest children," Paige said. "Maybe they have some special fertilizer up there in Vermont. But I grew up in Mississippi, and my parents taught me that money doesn't grow on trees."

Dan Langan, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, told Education World he thinks Dean's proposal could be detrimental to the state's children. "I believe it would be unfortunate for the schoolchildren of Vermont," Langan said. "By refusing to comply, they lose Title I money, which is designed to help the neediest students."

Representatives from the Department of Education, he added, would be happy to meet with Dean to discuss "how the provisions of the law are designed to help students and Vermont." The Department of Education is urging states to build their assessment programs on the assessments they already have in place.


Dean, though, is not opposed to testing or assessments, according to Allen.

"Secretary Paige has implied that the governor is not concerned about testing," Allen told Education World. "The governor very much supports assessment. Vermont has a very stringent testing and assessment program. It goes much further than the federal law requires."

As for possibly turning down Title I and other federal money, Allen said that the action is not a certainty. If Vermont does choose to do without the federal money, it will be because the cost of overhauling its testing program exceeds its federal allotment -- not because the state does not care about needy children.

"We love our children," Allen said. "We hope we have the same goals as the secretary -- improving education."