Santa Barbara News-Press, 3/18/05
Goleta schools may leave U.S. funds behind
By ROB KUZNIA, NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
Fed up with President Bush's centerpiece for education reform, the Goleta school board is considering becoming the first in California to forgo federal funding so that it can ignore the law.
Board members lament that the No Child Left Behind Act labels as failures fast-improving schools like Isla Vista School, slapping them with sanctions. This year, Isla Vista had to send all parents a letter telling them they could transfer their children to higher-performing schools.
But freeing the school from stigma would require forfeiting at least $400,000 in federal money for low-income students.
New board member Dean Nevins, who suggested the idea, said it might be worth it.
"(Isla Vista) is being told they are doing a bad job when they are doing a good job, and that's what I can't stand," he said. "Learning is not like fixing a car. You can't do it overnight. . . . It takes a year or two for kids to catch up."
His four colleagues on the board are willing to consider Mr. Nevin's idea, but school board member Jane Rudolph cautioned that the notion is in its infancy and might not be feasible.
"We need to learn that before we waste more time considering it," she said.
Ms. Rudolph is waiting for administrators to come back to the board with a report on whether the sanctions the school could face down the road will hurt students. She also wants to know more about the cost.
The No Child Left Behind Act was signed by President Bush in 2002. In essence, it aims to get all lower-achieving students over the same ascending hurdle, and sanctions entire schools when certain subgroups within them -- such as students with disabilities or the poor -- fail to do it.
The law is roundly criticized in California, in part because it fails to reward incremental improvement.
"It demonstrates the lack of flexibility and lack of understanding of California's school system," state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell told the News-Press. "It's overly prescriptive and it's a one-size-fits-all approach."
No California districts have dropped out, though Mr. O'Connell said he's heard of "one or two" other school districts having talked about it.
Around the nation, entire states are looking at dumping it. Utah is considering legislation that would allow it to ignore the law. Connecticut is undergoing a study that will determine whether the costs of the sanctions exceed the money received from the federal government, according to Holly Jacobson, assistant executive director of the California School Boards Association.
Goleta Union is in a unique position to drop the program because it's in good financial shape.
The nine-school elementary district enjoys a rare funding status known as "basic aid" that grants it about $700 per student beyond what is received by the majority of California districts. For Goleta Union this year, it means an extra $3 million -- bumping up its budget to $29 million.
School officials estimate quitting No Child Left Behind would cost roughly $400,000, the amount of money the district receives from the federal government for its low-income students.
Basic aid status is granted to about 5 percent of the state's school districts based on a complex formula involving declining enrollment and high property taxes.
But unlike Goleta, many of those districts -- such as the South Coast's Montecito and Cold Spring elementary districts -- needn't worry about No Child Left Behind because they are in wealthy communities that do not receive federal dollars for low-income students.
Goleta Union Superintendent Ida Rickborn, who could not be reached by the News-Press on Thursday, regularly criticizes the law. At a recent board meeting, she praised the board as it was discussing the notion of opting out.
"I can tell you personally how pleased I am to work with a board that takes your point of view on No Child Left Behind," said Ms. Rickborn, who is retiring in June. "We have probably another year to decide what we want to do."
Isla Vista is by far the district's most diverse school. Because the school's proximity to UCSB makes it a common pit stop for visiting professors from around the world, up to 25 languages are spoken there. The parents range from poor immigrants to academics.
Isla Vista receives about a fifth of the nine-school district's federal money for low-income students, known as Title I funds. Shortly after the school was placed on the federal government's sanction list, it received another $250,000 from the local coffers to hire more reading specialists.
Test scores at the school have improved. In two years, Isla Vista has raised its Academic Performance Index score -- which ranges from 200 to 1,000 -- by 50 points, to 679. But it remains the lowest-scoring school in the district.
School board member Manor Buck could not be reached for comment Thursday, but he expressed ambivalence at a recent meeting.
"I'm not ready yet to chuck (No Child Left Behind), but obviously it's going to hit us at some point in the future," he said, referring to how more schools will likely face sanctions. "We need to see what would happen if we try to chuck it."
Board member Rich Mayer said he agrees with the spirit of the suggestion, but said he is withholding judgment until administrators learn more about whether it can be done, and how much it would cost.
"I think the district and the teachers are in a better position to know how to solve our problems than the federal government is," he said.