States' threat to defy Bush

2nd May 2003 at 01:00

Lack of money is driving a revolt against sweeping school reforms, Stephen Phillips reports

PRESIDENT Bush's masterplan to overhaul America's dysfunctional state schools faces a revolt from cash-strapped state governments trying to avoid falling further into debt.

Amid the worst crisis in American public finances for 60 years, lawmakers in nine states are threatening to disregard the president's sweeping No Child Left Behind Act, citing inadequate White House funding.

Another 13, including Bush's home state of Texas, are petitioning the White House for additional funding, contending that the $21 billion (pound;13bn) pledged - $8.9bn less than Congress sought - falls woefully short.

The president's reform calls for standardised tests to be administered yearly to seven to 12-year-olds and for schools deemed to be underperforming to pay for extra-curricular lessons or for pupils to be ferried to alternative schools.

Scott Young, an education analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures, noted that federal funding to implement the legislation represented at least a 20 per cent increase on previous White House schools spending.

But this did not placate Law Finch, schools superintendent of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "Twenty per cent of what? Right now only about 4 per cent of the cost of educating children comes from the (federal) government," he said.

"The president keeps saying education is his highest priority but, based on his actions, cutting taxes is more important and that is incompatible with improving education."

The White House, which regards the Act as the cornerstone of its domestic policy, has said it will not brook non-compliance, but states' willingness to forgo federal funding could rob it of its biggest enforcement tool.

A recent study by the Hawaii government found that federal funding fell $176 million short of the cost of implementing the law there. This has prompted local politicians to call for the state to opt out of the president's initiative and hand back the $33m earmarked for it.

Massachusetts, Connecticut and Utah have commissioned similar studies and Utah is assessing whether it, too, can live without the federal funding.

The governors of Nebraska and Louisiana have also floated the possibility of not participating in No Child Left Behind.

Minnesota is considering barring education chiefs from agreeing to implement the Act without clearance from the state legislature.

Legislators in the eastern states of Vermont and New Hampshire have also balked at the prospect of tapping state coffers to plug federal funding shortfalls.

Grievances are compounded by resentment of anything smacking of central government intrusion into local affairs among many Americans. Hackles have also been raised by the Act's attempt to put administration of schools on a standardised footing, replacing the patchwork of local authorities at present running them.

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