Dean Considers Rejecting Federal Education Money

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Note: This story was filed for National Public Radio.

(Host) Education reform was a top priority for President Bush. His “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001 was co-sponsored by Massachusetts liberal Ted Kennedy and won bipartisan praise.

But one governor who has studied the fine print of the law says it amounts to a massive federal intrusion into state education policy. Howard Dean, Democratic governor of Vermont, says his state may want to reject the millions of dollars in federal education aid rather than comply with the law’s student testing requirements.

From Vermont Public Radio, John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) Vermont already tests students in grades 4, 8 and 10. Governor Dean, who has a reputation as a tight-fisted administrator worries that the federal law will force the state to spend more money to do that work all over again.

(Dean) “This is the largest federal intrusion into the local education system in the history of the United States.”

(Dillon) The federal government pays just 7% of the states’ education bill. Most of it comes under Title 1, the federal program that helps needy students. States that duck the new federal testing mandate won’t get the Title 1 funds.

(Dean) “If we say that we’re not going to participate in this because we already have our own testing and our own accountability, we will have to give up about $26 million of Title 1 money. … But if we participate under these rigid federal requirements, it may cost taxpayers as much as $50 or $60 million.”

(Dillon) Dean isn’t alone in his concerns about the new testing requirements. Education officials around the country have been grumbling about the new federal law, says Mike Griffith, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States in Denver. Griffith says a lot of states are waiting to see the detailed regulations that will put the education law into effect. Griffith says governors are worried about the law, but few are as out front as Dean.

(Griffith) “He’s sort of on the far end. But I think he is voicing a lot of concerns that are out there. There a lot of people within states that sort of feel that way, but they’re kind of waiting to see what comes through, what’s the final outcome, before they step in and make a decision.”

(Dillon) Vermont has relatively few students covered by Title 1, so the state may find it easier to reject the federal money. Griffith says southern states and those with more urban poor depend a lot more on the federal programs. He predicts that they’re likely to comply with the law. But, Griffith says, that doesn’t mean they’re happy about it.

(Griffith) “It’s not just a financial issue in a lot of states. With a lot of policymakers, it’s an issue that this is a federal government interceding in what is essentially a state or a local affair.”

(Dillon) Within Vermont, the reaction to Dean’s proposal has been mixed. State and local school officials are still trying to figure out the financial impact if they decide not to follow the testing mandate.

The head of the state’s Republican Party says Dean is simply being shortsighted. Like other states, Vermont faces a budget deficit. GOP Chairman Joe Acinapura says the state can’t afford to forego the federal funds.

(Acinapura) “I just think that that’s foolish. Where are we going to get the money from? I just don’t understand. We’re already in the hole.”

(Dillon) After 11 years in office Dean has his eye on the national stage. The popular five-term governor has just formed a political action committee to raise money for a presidential campaign. But Dean insists his campaign against the education bill isn’t part of the early politicking.

(Dean) “The politics of demanding accountability in schools is very good. … The policy of having a federal takeover of the school districts is very bad. And I think when most people realize what this bill does, they’re going to be very upset.”

(Dillon) Dean’s now talking to school officials around the state and says he’ll wait to hear back from them before making a decision on whether Vermont should turn its back on the federal law.

For NPR news, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier, Vermont.

Locate this story on NPR’s web site.

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