‘No Child Left Behind’ Fuels Fierce Debate

Published March 1, 2004

The bouquets and brickbats No Child Left Behind (NCLB) received on its second birthday in early January intensified a debate over the federal education law that is likely to last throughout this Presidential election year. For NCLB, 2004 could be a make-or-break year.

On January 8, 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law the beefed-up reauthorization of the LBJ-era Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), achieving overwhelming bipartisan support. He and the law’s supporters contend NCLB is reforming public education by for the first time shining a spotlight on subgroups of poor, minority, and disabled children and insisting schools help them progress steadily toward grade-level achievement.

Speaking at an NCLB birthday party in Knoxville, Tennessee, the President declared that to “challenge the soft bigotry of low expectations and to raise the standards for every single child,” it is necessary to test pupils every year in core subjects, as the NCLB requires states to do in grades 3-8 as a condition of receiving federal aid.

“If you don’t test,” the President declared, “you have a system that just shuffles the kids through.”

As evidence of early positive results for NCLB accountability, Bush cited nine-point gains on fourth-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math tests since 2000, and a five-point gain in eighth-grade reading scores over the same period. However, some testing specialists contend NCLB has not been in operation long enough to affect NAEP scores.

Solid Public Support

Bush and NCLB supporters on Capitol Hill also pointed to evidence of public support for NCLB standards and accountability. A national survey conducted in early January for Americans for Better Education by The Winston Group found a solid majority of Americans view NCLB favorably, with support highest among African-Americans and parents of children in public schools.

More than 100 black and Latino school officials signed a letter to Congress condemning calls to repeal NCLB’s accountability requirements, asserting the naysayers would “turn back the clock to a time when schools–particularly in suburban communities–could coast comfortably on the performance of a handful of high-performing students and hide serious problems behind misleading averages.”

Criticism and Regret

Many of the Democrats who once supported NCLB, together with their allies in the teacher unions–who long have argued for greater federal involvement in education–were condemning NCLB as unfair and inadequately funded. In campaigning for the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, Democratic hopeful Howard Dean was particularly biting in his criticism of NCLB. As governor of Vermont, he had even threatened to withdraw the state from NCLB and forgo the federal funds it provided.

Dean echoed the National Education Association (NEA) in charging NCLB uses a “one-size-fits-all” formula that imposes “rigid and expensive mandates” on local schools.

“This federal takeover of public education is the last thing we need,” declared Dean. “I never understood why Washington politicians think they can design a cookie-cutter policy that will work for all local schools.”

Another Democratic Presidential aspirant, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, said he regretted voting for NCLB. The chorus of Democratic laments over federal influence on public education prompted a wry observation from Andrew J. Rotherham, director of education policy for the politically centrist Progressive Policy Institute.

“When you start to hear national Democrats talking as if they are keynote speakers at the Federalist Society [a conservative legal group], that should be a cause for concern,” said Rotherham, who added that pulling the rug from under NCLB would run counter to the “equity for poor and minority kids” that Democrats have championed.

Some GOP Critics, Too

The national Democratic critics of NCLB attracted surprising support from a number of Republican state legislators. In Virginia, the Republican-controlled House of Delegates voted 98-1 to ask Congress to exempt the Old Dominion from NCLB’s requirements. The resolution stated that NCLB “represents the most sweeping intrusion into state and local control of education in the history of the United States” and will cost “literally millions of dollars that Virginia does not have.”

In Utah, Republican Rep. Margaret Dayton offered a one-sentence bill that would opt the state out of NCLB and forgo the funds. She contends the costs of implementation exceed what the state receives from NCLB. Indiana, North Dakota, Ohio, and Vermont are among the states launching studies to determine if NCLB costs more than it’s worth.

It’s About Money

Money is central to the political disputes. With passage of the FY 2004 omnibus appropriations bill, states have received an average increase of 42 percent in federal Title I aid since NCLB was signed into law, according to an analysis by the majority staff of the House Education Committee. Title I is the key program under the ESEA intended to close the achievement gap for minority children.

Yet Democratic critics contend NCLB spending since 2001 has fallen more than $7 billion short of what Congress authorized. The explanation lies in the fact that Congress frequently authorizes far more for programs than it later appropriates.

“When Democrats controlled Congress and the White House, they routinely appropriated less than they technically authorized for major education programs, yet the NEA never once accused President Clinton of underfunding education,” noted House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-Ohio). “But when a Republican President moved into the White House, the NEA moved the goalposts.”

Boehner further contended Washington has increased education spending so rapidly over the past few years that many states haven’t even been able to spend hundreds of millions of dollars appropriated to them in FY 2000 through FY 2002. Unspent Title I dollars total almost $2 billion.

“We are pumping gas into a flooded engine,” Boehner commented.

As for Virginia and the legislature’s money complaints, Eugene Hickok, acting deputy director of the U.S. Department of Education, noted the Old Dominion has $170 million in unspent federal education funds, dating to 2000.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].