Vermont Governor Opposed to Education Plan

APRIL 18, 16:02 ET

AP Education Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — Rebelling against new school-testing demands, Vermont's governor says he wants his state to consider rejecting $26 million in federal education money to escape the requirements attached to it.

The testing component is a key part of President Bush's education plan, which Gov. Howard Dean called ``a terribly flawed bill.'' He also said provisions on school prayer and access to student information overstep the limits of federal oversight.

Dean, a Democrat who is considering a run for the presidency in 2004, said Vermont has developed its own comprehensive testing system, which it would have to rebuild to comply with federal requirements. Under Bush's plan, schools receiving federal money must test all students in grades three through eight in reading and math.

``It's going to be incredibly expensive and require us to do our work all over again,'' Dean said in an interview. ``I don't think the people who wrote this bill had much consideration for the taxpayers, because this is going to cost people all across this nation.''

Education Department spokesman Dan Langan said he knew of no other states that have said they might refuse federal funds to opt out of Bush's plan, one of the most comprehensive overhauls of elementary and secondary education in the past 30 years.

About 100,000 students attend public school in Vermont, making its enrollment smaller than many big-city school districts, but complaints similar to Dean's have been made by many critics since Congress approved the bill last December. All three of Vermont's members of Congress — including Independent Sen. James Jeffords, an early proponent — voted against the bill.

Dean said he will meet with state school officials in late May and ask them to consider whether Vermont should refuse an estimated $26 million in federal funding, provided mostly for poor students through the federal Title I program.

``If this bill is going to cost us $50 or $60 million to implement ... then it might be just as well to opt out,'' he said.

Langan said Education Secretary Rod Paige would welcome the opportunity to talk to Dean and his staff about how the law would be implemented in Vermont.

``We're pretty surprised to see that any state would be willing to walk away from its neediest children,'' Langan said, referring to the Title I money, which last year amounted to about $21 million.

Dean also said he would pose the question to the citizens of Vermont, who would likely face ``enormous'' property tax increases to pay for the testing and other measures, he said.

``I think the taxpayers are going to have something to say about it too.''

Dean said Vermont's accountability system, which tests students in grades 4, 8 and 10, is adequate to judge schools.

Bush's plan would place sanctions against schools that don't raise scores on state tests over several years, allowing students to transfer to another public school and use federal money to get tutoring or transportation to another school.

Dean said Vermont's testing system has high standards ``because we want the schools to be striving for them.'' He said about 30 percent of Vermont public schools would be considered ``failing'' under Bush's definition because scores aren't rising quickly enough, even though the schools are performing well.

``It's going to give us a huge incentive to dumb down the standards,'' he said.

He also said the bill's requirements that school districts issue new ``report cards'' on school performance, allow some types of school prayer and give the armed services and colleges equal access to student databases amount to the ``federalization of education'' — a criticism that has mostly been leveled at Bush's plan by conservatives.

``That policy shouldn't be set in Congress,'' Dean said of armed services access. ``It seems to me local school boards should make those decisions.''