A Virginia House of Delegates committee rejected a bill Wednesday that would have allowed the state to waive mandates required under the No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush's signature education program.
Members of the Education Committee, who voted 11 to 6 to kill the bill, said they feared that opting out of the law's requirements could freeze the federal funding that the program brings to the state.
Delegates in the Republican-controlled House have been troubled by the program's requirements, and in January, during the 2004 legislative session, voted overwhelmingly for a resolution that sharply criticized No Child Left Behind.
The resolution, supported by all the members of the Education Committee, called the program an unfunded mandate that hampered Virginia's school systems.
House Bill 337, submitted in January and sponsored by Del. Albert C. Pollard Jr. (D-Lancaster), would have taken advantage of a section of the act that allows states to ask for a waiver from its mandates if the state's own educational standards program comply with the federal law.
The state bill was held over for further consideration and was reviewed Wednesday as part of the House's yearly discussion of the previous session's bills.
Opponents of the bill said the state should find ways to work within the federal program rather than reject it out of hand. Virginia receives $280 million annually from No Child Left Behind funding.
"I don't like everything the federal government does, but this legislation is going to evolve," said Del Phillip A. Hamilton (R-Newport News) before voting against the bill. "I think the program -- while it's not perfect -- is a good first step."
Many educators nationwide have criticized the law's testing requirements for students who are enrolled in special education classes and for those for whom English is a second language.
After the vote, Pollard said he would not give up on his proposal. He or another lawmaker could introduce a new bill in the 2005 session, which will begin Jan. 12.
"I don't care how it's done; I just want to see the problem fixed," Pollard said, adding that he does not believe Virginia would automatically lose federal funding if it opted out of the program.
The vote on the bill came after more than an hour of testimony from school administrators and educational advocates who argued that the law handcuffs localities with unfair rules that hamper the ability to teach. Lawmakers critical of the act also said that in many cases the federal government does not provide enough funding for the mandates the program imposes.
"This is a punitive act that uses coercion," said Del. James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax), chairman of the Education Committee and a long-standing critic of the federal program. "It's costing us additional money and all kinds of pain and suffering."
In the January vote on the House resolution, 98 delegates condemned the No Child Left Behind Act as unnecessary, because of Virginia's tough Standards of Learning program. The commonwealth was one of about 30 states that either passed resolutions or considered bills seeking waivers from the mandates, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Lawmakers and educators concerned about the federal act say that the program imposes an unnecessary level of bureaucracy on school divisions. For instance, under Virginia's educational system, students take the SOL exams in English, history, math and science in third, fifth and eighth grades and in high school. Seventy percent of children must pass the exams for a district to be considered passing.
The problem, some educators say, is that the No Child Left Behind Act has introduced a different way of judging whether schools are succeeding. It is not enough for 70 percent of students to pass the test, as it is under Virginia's standards. The federal law requires that everyone -- including minorities, students from low-income homes and those with special needs -- meet the same goals.