RICHMOND -- Virginia lawmakers want to know how much the state is paying to implement the No Child Left Behind education law, and how much Virginia would lose in federal funds if it left the law behind.
They need the information, they said, before they can consider the dramatic step of withdrawing from the federal program next year. It also signals of how seriously they take the state Board of Education's effort to win more flexibility on the law from the federal government.
"It's going to cost us a whole lot more to stay in then to get out," said Del. James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax), chairman of the House's Education Committee and one of the assembly's most vocal critics of the law.
The Board of Education voted last month to seek waivers from 10 detailed requirements of No Child Left Behind, citing a provision of the law that allows the U.S. education secretary to exempt states from any of its strictures. State Superintendent Jo Lynne DeMary said that there has been a meeting with federal regulators since that vote but that they have yet to comment on the bulk of the request.
Negotiations now occur against a backdrop of escalating rhetoric about the law's impact on education, nationally and in Virginia. In legislation approved this week by both chambers of the General Assembly, lawmakers requested that the cost analysis be completed by Oct. 1. The legislation also directs the Board of Education to seek waivers from pieces of the law that are "duplicative" of Virginia's own Standards of Learning testing system or "lacking in effectiveness."
The federal law requires yearly testing of students in grades 3 through 8 and dictates serious consequences for schools that do not meet a formula for progress. Subgroups of students -- including ethnic minorities, disabled students and students who have limited English skills -- must show yearly improvement, and all students must pass math and reading tests by 2014.
Lawmakers and educators in Virginia have said the complex formula used to determine whether schools are progressing represents intrusive federal control of public schools. They also have said the formula interferes with Virginia's preexisting accountability system, which requires that 70 percent of students pass Standards of Learning exams in reading, math, history and science.
"We have to stand up and assert our rightful prerogative to control education in the state," Dillard said. The delegate was one of 16 state legislators who authored a report released Wednesday by the National Conference of State Legislatures blasting No Child Left Behind as flawed and potentially unconstitutional. "If we give this up, we will have as much control over our public school system as we presently have over health care. Which is basically zilch," he said.
Ellen Qualls, a spokeswoman for Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), said he probably will sign House Bill 2602, believing that seeking waivers is a good way to address the state's concerns about the federal law. She said the governor also supports studying the implications of withdrawing from the law, but that he is not prepared to endorse doing so.
Virginia receives about $350 million in federal funds to help low-income students. It is generally agreed that the funding would be put at risk if the state rejected the federal law's requirements. Studying the idea, however, leaves the prospect on the table.
"There is no doubt in my mind [lawmakers] are not unwilling to take that step if in fact they don't feel there has been reasonableness on the part of the federal government to try to understand our issues," DeMary said.
On the waivers, U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman Susan Aspey said the department is giving the "additional requests all due serious consideration and [has] made no promises." Supporters of the law contend that it is disingenuous for many lawmakers and educators to claim support for its central goal -- closing the achievement gap between minorities and other students -- but also threaten to end participation.
"These are Virginia's goals that Virginia has set for all students," said Ross Wiener, policy director for the Education Trust think tank.