GAO Weighs in on NCLB Compliance

Published November 1, 2004

“How is the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act going?” was one question many of the nation’s education researchers and policy analysts found themselves asked repeatedly as summer waned and Election Day approached. Two reports released in September by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) offered some new insight into NCLB’s progress.

The first report, “No Child Left Behind Act: Improvements Needed in Education’s Process for Tracking States’ Implementation of Key Provisions,” focuses on the wide range of responses and plans offered by states to comply with NCLB. The report points out that as of July 31, 2004, only 28 states had their plans “fully approved” by the federal Department of Education. The plans of the remaining states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico are currently under “approved with conditions” status, meaning their plans must meet further review before being deemed in full compliance with the law.

The study discusses the ongoing technical assistance, flexibility, and monitoring by federal officials to help keep the process moving forward and to help bring states into full compliance. The GAO recommends the secretary of education “delineate in writing the process and time frames … for each state … so that all states have approved NCLB standards and assessments in place by the 2005-06 school year.”

The report notes this lack of full compliance is not unique to NCLB, pointing out that 17 states still have not implemented the standards and testing systems required by the 1994 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. GAO suggests a lack of a written plan and process to track states’ progress hindered compliance with the 1994 law and could also hinder NCLB.

Rural Schools

The second GAO study, “No Child Left Behind Act: Additional Assistance and Research on Effective Strategies Would Help Small Rural Districts,” addresses how NCLB is proceeding in rural schools.

As could be expected, rural school districts reported somewhat different challenges than their non-rural counterparts, and as a result have turned to different resources and solutions to meet them. For instance, rural superintendents found more difficulties in offering competitive salaries to teachers. They also were more likely than other districts to use distance learning and online teacher training options.

The report gave positive marks to the Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP), for which Congress authorized $168 million. Nearly 70 percent of rural school superintendents reported they received REAP funding and were using it in ways that helped them meet NCLB requirements.

More Carrots for DC Public Schools

On September 22, the Senate joined the House in approving, by unanimous consent, a second year of funding for Washington, DC’s voucher program as part of the fiscal year 2005 DC appropriations. The bill includes $40 million for the same “three-pronged” education plan for the District passed at the program’s inception, with $13 million each going to the voucher plan, DC charter schools, and the District’s traditional public schools for “investing in excellence.”

The House had approved its plan in July with very similar provisions. The two appropriations bills must be reconciled and re-approved as a final project, either later this year or early in 2005.

Meanwhile, DC charter schools were featured in Washingtonian magazine’s October “Top High Schools” issue, which compared the charters quite favorably to their counterparts in the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). The magazine found that overall, 73 percent of the students at the District’s 11 charter schools qualify for free or reduced price lunch, compared to 51 percent at the other 16 DCPS high schools.

“DC public charter high schools enroll a much greater percentage of disadvantaged students than do DCPS high schools, yet on average their students significantly outperform DCPS students on the Stanford 9 test,” observed Robert Cane, executive director of the DC charter advocacy group Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, commenting on the Washingtonian results.

He noted charter school students also outperform DCPS students on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Special Education Act Renewal Uncertain

On September 21, Senate leadership appointed conferees to a House-Senate Conference Committee on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Appointees included the entire membership of the Senate Education Committee.

The Senate passed the IDEA legislation on May 13, a year after the House passed its version. Under Congressional rules, the two markedly different bills must first be reconciled and approved in conference, then the final version must be voted on in each chamber before it is sent to the president for signing.

As this issue went to press in early October, House conferees had not yet been named. The delays have substantially dimmed the prospects of completing the conference process during the current Congress.

Don Soifer ([email protected]) is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.

For more information …

The two GAO studies are available on the agency’s Web site at and