JOHN MERROW: Ever since the "No Child Left Behind" act went into effect, educators and legislators from Maine have been looking for a way out.
PEGGY ROTUNDO: We know we have very good schools. We have high standards. We have national test scores to demonstrate that. When you have a great success record, why change things? If it's not broken, why change it?
TOM HOOD: I think we could have done all of what "No Child Left Behind" is trying to do. Without the measures that the "No Child Left Behind" has in place.
JOHN MERROW: Tom Hood is principal of Governor Longley Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine.
TOM HOOD: Some of those things that they're asking in the "No Child Left Behind" leaves teachers, staff feeling really stressed and I don't think that's a good climate for learning for kids and for teachers.
JOHN MERROW: If states want federal education money, they must adhere to the provisions of the "No Child Left Behind" Act. Among other things the new law calls for: Highly qualified teachers. All teachers must have state certification, a bachelor's degree, and training in the subject area. School choice: Local school districts must offer public school choice to students in low-income schools identified in need of improvement two years in a row. Testing: States must test all children in grades three through eight in reading and math. Some of the new laws' requirements do not sit well with educators in rural states. More than 50 percent of Maine students attend rural schools. That's second only to Vermont.
SUSAN GENDRON, Maine Education Commissioner: As a small rural state we don't believe the law recognized the ruralness of Maine.
JOHN MERROW: Susan Gendron is Maine's commissioner of education. She's struggling with the law's demand for highly qualified teachers.
SUSAN GENDRON: I was in a remote part of the state last week and the superintendent was asking me, he said, you know, I can't find a certified, qualified foreign language teacher. I have an individual in the community who was raised in another country, knows the language... it's their native language. Can that person come and teach it as a foreign language? "No Child Left Behind" would say absolutely no. And yet if we don't work and support this school system, the children there will go without foreign language.
JOHN MERROW: In addition to teacher quality, the issue of school choice is problematic in states like Maine.
SUSAN GENDRON: We don't necessarily have the opportunities to offer choice. When you look at Maine, we have one community with two high schools-- Portland. Other than that, we only have one high school in all of our school districts.
EUGENE HICKOK, Deputy Secretary of Education: When one says rural school don't offer school choice, literally you're right. The idea of being able to go from a public school that's needing improvement to a public school that works may not be feasible.
JOHN MERROW: At the U.S. Department of education, Deputy Secretary Eugene Hickok oversees state compliance with the No Child Left Behind act.
EUGENE HICKOK: Go to the spirit of the law. Create choices within the school -- curriculum offerings. Use technology. Create charter schools. Create schools in schools. The goal here is if things aren't working try to find opportunities for kids and try to change the way things are working to make them successful.
JOHN MERROW: Maine Congressman Tom Allen, a Democrat, voted for the "No Child Left Behind" act, but has since changed his mind.
REP. TOM ALLEN: No Child Left Behind doesn't work as well in rural areas because there aren't alternative schools. There aren't charter schools to go to.
JOHN MERROW: Maine's legislators and educators are also concerned with the law's requirement for annual testing in math and reading in grades three through eight.
SUSAN GENDRON: Maine recognizes that learning takes place in different time frames. We would assess at grades four, eight and 11 as benchmark years. And Washington said "not good enough."
SPOKESMAN: The curriculum is becoming very narrow. You don't see kids involved with singing, music, doing art projects as much as they have in the past because they've got to meet the assessments.
JOHN MERROW: The state consistently ranks in the top six in the nation in math, reading, science and writing. A few years ago "Forbes" Magazine compared states and concluded that Maine provides the biggest bang for its education buck.
SUSAN GENDRON: We believe that the methods that we have established, the processes we have put in place, long before "No Child Left Behind" came on the scene, really was the best way to go.
JOHN MERROW: Maine's own education curriculum, "learning results," was established in 1996 and relies heavily on local control. Maine believes that it works. So for Maine is "No Child Left Behind" a good law?
SUSAN GENDRON: We did not need "No Child Left Behind." We were already there.
EUGENE HICKOK: When Maine says that and every state in the nation says that. I mean literally. We had every state come in for private conversations at the department, and two things were said, I think literally by every state at the start of every one of those conversations. The first one was "we agree completely with the ideas and goals of 'No Child Left Behind.'" We're your staunchest supporters." Secondly, "we've been getting it right for the last ten years. Let's keep doing what we're doing." So Maine's voice is added to a chorus that is very loud and very clear. The data tells us nationwide that's not the fact.
JOHN MERROW: The U.S. Department of Education has no plans to ask congress to change the law.
EUGENE HICKOK: Wherever students are not achieving at levels they should and whoever those students are, we have an obligation to do something about it -- whether it's on a mountain top in Montana or in a ghetto in New York City.
JOHN MERROW: Are you going to bend when states yell?
EUGENE HICKOK: Well, I mean, we're going to listen -- whether they yell or not because our job is to listen. But, you know, America wasn't built on an attitude of throwing up our hands and saying we can't do it. It was built on an attitude that says "we'll get it done. We'll get it done."
JOHN MERROW: The Department has created a rural education task force to address concerns coming from Maine and other rural states. One of the major issues is funding. Maine is eligible for about $90 million in federal funds under the "No Child Left Behind Act." But Representative Allen believes that the increased testing, retraining teachers and other new requirements will cost Maine a lot more than that.
REP. TOM ALLEN: Back home, the school districts don't have the money to fulfill all the mandates that the federal government has now imposed on them through this law.
EUGENE HICKOK: There's lots of money. Could there be more money, of course? I've never met the school board member or the superintendent or the state board member or anyone who has ever said "please, we have enough money. Don't give us anymore money."
JOHN MERROW: In May, Maine's House and Senate passed a resolution asking Washington for a waiver from the new law. State Senator Rotundo was a co- sponsor.
JOHN MERROW: Did you really believe the federal government would say, "oh, sure, you can have a waiver, Maine?"
PEGGY ROTUNDO: We were hoping that it would help. We were hoping that it would help them to understand that we felt that we could do the work on our own, that it wasn't necessary for us to meet the standards in the federal legislation because we had ample evidence that we were doing a very good job already.
JOHN MERROW: Maine asked for a waiver.
EUGENE HICKOK: Right.
JOHN MERROW: Was any conversation given to saying yes?
EUGENE HICKOK: Not much. To be honest with you. We are not really big fans of the "w" word. Congress isn't. We're not. We try very hard to be partners with the leadership in Maine. Of course they do have the ability, every state does, to just not accept the federal dollars and therefore not do what "No Child Left Behind" requires.
JOHN MERROW: Maine does have the option of refusing the $90 million, but that's 5 percent of Maine's education spending. And like most states, Maine has a budget crisis. The state is facing an overall deficit of more than $1 billion.
JOHN MERROW: What are the odds that Maine would turn its back on the money?
SUSAN GENDRON: It's still 5 percent and it's very difficult to raise that. We're going to work hard to change "No Child Left Behind."
JOHN MERROW: This fall, Maine will be watching the "No Child Left Behind" act carefully, paying special attention to how much the changes are costing the state.
SUSAN GENDRON: If the funds do not match the requirements, then I anticipate that they will request the attorney general to go forward.
JOHN MERROW: Sue the federal government.
SUSAN GENDRON: In Washington, yes.
JOHN MERROW: Maine is not alone. Other rural states-- Alaska, Montana, Vermont, New Hampshire, Nebraska-- have expressed their concerns about No Child Left Behind. A law that seems certain to continue to have a dramatic effect on public education.