Congress Returns to Challenges Old and New

Published March 1, 2004

January marked the second anniversary of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). President George W. Bush observed the event with an upbeat appearance at a public elementary school in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he unveiled his FY 2005 budget, containing a 48 percent increase in federal K-12 education spending over FY 2001 levels.

But around the country, critics of the landmark law did not hesitate to make their own feelings known. Democratic candidates barnstorming the state of Iowa on the eve of its Presidential caucuses were among the severest critics. Vermont Governor Howard Dean branded the law “a draconian takeover of local and state control,” blasted its reliance on standardized test scores, and called its accountability measures burdensome and inflexible.

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who voted for NCLB, repeatedly attacked the Bush administration for subsequently underfunding it. But he also challenged NCLB on policy grounds. On the stump in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Kerry called for “judging schools on more than just test scores” and for “rewarding, not punishing, the states that make progress and implement high standards.”

On Capitol Hill, those attacks did not go unnoticed by the Congressional leaders who crafted the law. On January 14, House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-Ohio) released his own report, titled “NCLB Funding: Pumping Gas Into a Flooded Engine.” The report found an average of more than $36 million in unspent federal Title I funds for disadvantaged students among the 50 states, excluding special education funding, as of January 6, 2004.

“The discovery that Tennessee has such a large sum of unspent education funding when so many have criticized a perceived lack of funding is surprising,” remarked Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), whose state was found to be sitting on nearly $142 million in unspent federal education funds.

The report found Virginia had left $53 million unspent. Nevertheless, the Virginia House of Delegates in January passed a strongly worded resolution which read, in part, “NCLB contains several very expensive mandates. … Congress has not provided sufficient funds for its mandates; for example, the voluminous computerized record-keeping requirements of the law will cost literally millions of dollars that Virginia does not have.”

Local Flex Underused

Last fall, Seattle became the first district in the nation to enroll in NCLB’s Local Flexibility pilot program. “Local Flex” allows school officials to combine several categories of federal funding and redirect spending to local priorities, at their discretion. Funds that can be combined include Teacher and Principal Training and Recruitment, Safe and Drug-Free Schools, Innovative Programs, and Ed Tech.

In turn, participating school districts must show the funds are being used to increase academic achievement based on specific, measurable education goals and strategies.

While NCLB allows 80 school districts nationally to enroll, Seattle so far remains the sole participant.

Inadequate Notification about Choices

Another report issued by the House Education Committee in January concluded many states did an inadequate job of implementing the new options NCLB offers parents. It found some states to be unduly slow in making test scores available and designating schools as being in need of improvement.

The report, “NCLB’s School Transfer and Free Tutoring Provisions: Are States and Schools Providing Adequate Notice to Low-Income Parents about Their Options?” cited numerous press accounts that pointed to shortcomings in many school districts, including Chicago and New York City.

While the report noted state approval of supplemental service providers for NCLB’s new portability has increased in the current school year, it characterized the progress as uneven.

More Choice Funds in Bush Budget

A $50 million Choice Incentive Fund once again represented a school reform highlight in the proposed FY 2005 budget unveiled by Bush in January.

“This action builds upon the No Child Left Behind Act and other efforts to make certain every child in this country receives a quality education,” said Education Secretary Rod Paige, “and we mean every child, regardless of race, special needs, income, or geography. All children in America deserve the chance to learn and thrive.”

The fund has been proposed by the President in previous budgets and is a separate entity from the first-ever federal vouchers for children in the District of Columbia. (See “DC Vouchers Approved,” page 1.)

One proposed use for the funds is a new federal education tax credit, proposed by Representative Trent Franks (R-Arizona). Franks, who named his proposal The Children’s Hope Act, believes it will build on the successes of Arizona’s scholarship tax credit, which he authored.

“This is a unique, cost-free charitable opportunity to improve a child’s life and their chance at the best education possible,” said Franks. The $100 federal tax credit ($200 for joint returns) comes on top of qualified state tax credits of $250 or more and is designed to encourage states to adopt tax credits of their own.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The two Congressional reports–“NCLB Funding: Pumping Gas Into a Flooded Engine” and “NCLB’s School Transfer and Free Tutoring Provisions: Are States and Schools Providing Adequate Notice to Low-Income Parents about Their Options?”–are available from the Web site of the House Education Committee at