Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Would Feds Withhold Education Funding Over Seattle High School's Refusal To Test?

Evan Vucci
AP Photo
President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appear together in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

The letter of the law is pretty clear, state schools superintendent Randy Dorn has warned.

If teachers at Seattle's Nathan Hale High School follow through on their promise not to give their eleventh graders a federally-required standardized test, Dorn's office says federal education officials could cut off funding not only for Seattle Public Schools but even for schools across Washington state.

But would the feds actually go so far? Some anti-testing advocates and policy experts doubt it.

"I certainly think that you might get a threatening letter or some unpleasant phone calls and conversations, but I'm not sure it goes all the way to taking dollars away," said Anne Hyslop, a senior policy analyst at the national non-profit research and consultancy group Bellwether Education Partners.

'Anything's Possible'

Staff members at Nathan Hale High School are weighing their options this week about whether to proceed with their scheduled boycott of the Smarter Balanced Assessments, which the No Child Left Behind law requires juniors to take this year.

Principal Jill Hudson has said the school's leadership team did not arrive at its decision to boycott the assessment lightly; that Nathan Hale teachers have serious concerns about the number of tests their students must take. But Hudson says the staff doesn't want to jeopardize funding for other schools or districts.

"We're more heavily-scrutinized because we are the largest district in the state," Hudson said in an interview on March 2. "Because of that heavy scrutiny, anything's possible."

Under Law, Schools Cannot 'Take A Year Off'

Washington state's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction first raised the possibility that Nathan Hale's boycott "could have statewide effects" on Feb. 26.

The state agency pointed to a letter the U.S. Department of Education sent to the Illinois State Board of Education. The letter spells out that a school district is "not allowed to 'take a year off'" from annual testing under the No Child Left Behind law.

The letter also says that, among the consequences that could follow a breach of NCLB, the feds "might seek to withhold programmatic funds from the State and expect the [state] to withhold from [local schools or districts]."

"Washington state receives federal education funds on the condition that federal laws are followed," OSPI spokesman Nathan Olson said in a statement. "If a school decides not to follow federal law, it isn’t unreasonable to think that federal money might be withheld."

'Reluctant To Throw Down Serious Sanctions'

New America education policy analyst Kaylan Connally says that while it's within the feds' authority to freeze funding over Nathan Hale's refusal to test, it's not likely they'd actually take that step.

"It does seem like a tall order," Connally said. "The first step would be a letter asking for compliance before actually seeing anything more drastic happen." 

Hyslop agrees, citing recent history. She points to the waivers from NCLB's most stringent requirements that the U.S. Department of Education issued to more than 40 states — including, at one point, Washington. Though Washington lost its waiver over a disagreement over the state's teacher evaluation law, it never lost federal funding.

"The U.S. Department of Education has been pretty reluctant on the whole to throw down the most serious sanctions against states that haven't been following the letter of the law or the spirit of their waiver request, and they've also been reluctant throughout the course of NCLB's implementation to really take funding away from states; there's only a few cases where that's happened," Hyslop said. 

'Our Families Have Rights'

The Nathan Hale High School Senate formally voted to refuse to give Smarter Balanced tests to juniors, not sophomores, at a meeting late last month. The teachers, parents, administrators, staff members and students of the Senate — the school's "building leadership team" — have formal powers to adopt budgets and decisions impacting the school.

Minutes of the Senate's meetings show the group has discussed a "Plan B": administering Smarter Balanced Assessments to juniors, but giving parents instructions on how to refuse that their child be tested.

"Even if we're directed to give this assessment — and it is a state directive that we administer this assessment — we're also going to make sure our families know that they do have rights," Hudson said, "and ... to refuse to have their students sit for the assessment is well within their rights."

Contacted this week, OSPI spokesman Nathan Olson said state education officials are still reviewing how to handle Nathan Hale's decision.

The issue, he said, is "complicated."

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.