PHILADELPHIA – Regardless of what political party they belong to, school district officials and legislators here are challenging the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, calling it the most underfunded mandate in U.S. history.

NCLB mandates that all students in all school districts in the U.S. reach 100 percent proficiency in reading, mathematics and science by 2014. The law professes to close the academic gap between wealthy and poor students, Black students and white, special education and regular, those with limited English and those who are fluent, and disabled students and those without disabilities. Each state had to submit a plan to the U.S. Department of Education showing how it would accomplish this feat.

On March 1, almost 140 Pennsylvania school superintendents from 14 counties met in Norristown, Pa., to declare NCLB unfair and to suggest how it should be changed. Their districts represent over one-third of the state’s 1.8 million students.

“In its current version the law is destined for failure,” said James R. Weaver, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, representing 163,000 teachers. “[It] will hinder quality education for students and will cause public schools to be unfairly perceived as failures.”

In a petition to federal officials, the superintendents, backed by their school boards, asked for changes in the NCLB law to exempt special education students from mandated reading and mathematics tests, to delay testing of students with limited English and to fully fund both NCLB and special education laws.

Lisa Andrejko, superintendent of the Norristown School District, said the federal law imposes sanctions but fails to pay for extra programs needed to boost performance of students with special needs or those living in poverty.

“All the attention is on testing,” said Andrejko. “We have moved from sound instruction to teaching to the tests.”

Amy Sichel, superintendent of the Abington schools, agreed. “The focus on testing for reading and math is distracting from elective classes and students’ interests and other education goals,” she said.

Several school districts in Vermont and Connecticut have rejected federal funds rather than comply with NCLB mandates. Seven states passed resolutions criticizing the law. The Virginia House Education Committee called the law “ludicrous” and “utopian nonsense.”

The Utah Legislature passed a law forbidding the expenditure of state funds on NCLB, and Hawaii lawmakers will delay implementation until Congress provides more money. The Republican-controlled Ohio Legislature studied the cost of implementing NCLB and found that it would need an additional $1.4 billion a year.

President Bush promised full funding for NCLB when he signed the bill Jan. 8, 2002, but more than $8 billion in promised funds have been cut.

“From Head Start and Title I to after-school programs and dropout prevention,” said Marian Wright Edelman, Children’s Defense Fund president, “the Bush administration’s budget ignores at-risk youth by failing to provide the resources that could help them make a successful transition to adulthood.”

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