Vermont Schools Join Federal Lawsuit

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(Host) Schools in Pittsford, Brandon, Leicester, Sudbury and Whiting are joining with school districts in Michigan and Texas and several state teachers’ associations to take on the U.S. Education Department in federal court.

The suit, which was filed today, claims that the federal No Child Left Behind law is not being adequately funded as promised.

VPR’s Nina Keck spoke with educators involved with the suit to find out why they went to court.

(Keck) At Otter Valley Union High School in Brandon, students clog the hallways between classes. Principal Dana Cole-Levesque makes his way slowly to his office greeting students along the way.

(Cole-Levesque)”Thank Mrs. Robinson for that.
(Student) Hey thanks for the two hour delay this morning.
(Cole-Levesque) Oh you’re most welcome. I think the lawsuit represents the frustration that people in public education have with the federal government.”

(Keck) Otter Valley is one of the Rutland county schools taking part in the lawsuit. Cole-Leveque says that while most of his students are doing very well, a sub-group of kids who are economically disadvantaged has not met adequate yearly standards for the past two years. Because of that, Cole-Leveque says the whole school has been identified under the No Child Left Behind law as one that needs assistance. He says his staff is working hard to help those kids do better.

(Cole-Leveque) “We are promoting differentiated instruction throughout the curriculum. We are developing after school programs. We’re developing summer school programs. We want to support all those kids with not only the academic activities they need to do to develop successful careers, but outside enrichment activities.”

(Keck) But he says they’ve received no additional federal money to help pay for those programs. And he says going to court may be the only way to change that.

(Cole-Leveque) “I feel we’re being held accountable as educators every day we walk in the building. And every time we work with a student who hasn’t met a standard and trying to devise a plan to help them meet the standards. Where’s the federal government’s accountability in its roll in supporting the social services, the educational programs, from early childhood education on? How is it being held accountable?”

(Keck) No one from the U.S. Department of Education was willing to be interviewed for this story. But a written statement they supplied argues that federal funding of all K-12 programs has increased over thirty-seven percent in the last four years. The department says federal education funding for Vermont is more than $355 million dollars – a forty percent increase from when President Bush took office.

(Mathis) “Yes that’s what Washington people say. And that’s true. Except that forty percent of nothing is still nothing. The total increases to educational spending attributed to NCLB is less than one percent of total spending. And next year it’s going to be cut.”

(Keck) But James Peyser, Chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education and co-author of a 2004 study that assessed the costs of implementing No Child Left Behind in Massachusetts, says funding shortfalls are not nearly so grave. Peyser says for some things, like developing and administering tests, federal funding in Massachusettes is adequate – at least for now. Future shortfalls in funding may arise, he says, but he believes they can be filled by reallocating funds at the state level from lower to higher priority programs.

(Peyser) “So I don’t think the issue that the states aught to be worried about is how do we get more money out of the federal government per se, but rather, how do we make sure that the funds that we have control over are allocated in a way that is most likely to bring all children up to levels of proficiency?”

(Mathis) “Even the schools that get the most money per student don’t have enough to do what the need to do.”

(Keck) Bill Mathis is superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, which oversees the Vermont schools involved in the lawsuit.

(Mathis) “Take Brandon for example. We have to put together a funding plan and send it to the state as to what we would need to help the children in poverty. That would cost us $390,000. The state government has given us, through the federal government, $8,000 to do a $390,000 program.”

(Keck) While a number of states have threatened court cases over various aspects of the No Child Left Behind law, Mathis says so far, this is the first to be filed in federal court.

For Vermont public Radio, I’m Nina Keck

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