Waiver Avalanche Uncovers Flaws of NCLB

Published October 20, 2011

Thirty-six states have said they will seek waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in the next six months. Nationwide frustration over the law reflects not only its agonizing muddle of federal money and regulations but also how this morass represents what’s wrong with American education.

The same justifications lawmakers touted when passing NCLB in 2001 have pushed every modification in federal education policy since NCLB’s parent, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, passed in 1965. Many students cannot read and compute; even more minority students cannot do so; and all sorts of other populations, such as the learning disabled and poor, receive deficient attention.

But massive spending increases and policy interventions have done approximately nothing in the past 50 years to improve American education. Between 1970 and 2010, average National Assessment of Educational Progress scores for 17-year-olds, public schools’ “final products,” have been mediocre and have remained essentially unchanged – a result that repeats on nearly every measure available.

Currently, the debate over how (once more) to change federal education policy centers on two buzzwords: accountability and local control. “Accountability” has come to mean filing myriad reports with the feds in return for funds that represent roughly 10 percent of education dollars spent and placement on “failed” lists if a specific percent of students fail whatever standards the state and feds have assigned that year. “Local control” has come to mean continuing to send government education bureaucrats billions of taxpayer dollars and letting them have their way with the money.

Obviously, neither approach works. The Obama administration claims its decision to waive portions of NCLB will return local control to desperate schools wailing for relief from the onerous requirements Republicans demand as a proxy for accountability. Republicans contend this will undo all the testing and transparency “progress” NCLB has netted in its decade of existence.

Each side emphasizes a different evil of the legislation. The Department of Education points to states refusing to comply or hopelessly falling behind as NCLB requirements ratchet up toward 100 percent proficiency of all students by 2014. The few remaining NCLB supporters note that the law has forced transparency on school data so now we know which children and districts have failed and can at least require attempts at a remedy. Previously, schools had hidden that information.

NCLB has cost the taxpayers $400 billion and cost the states billions more in compliance costs since it was enacted. That’s some expensive transparency. It will become even more expensive opacity if the federal government funds NCLB while getting nothing in return.

That, however, is exactly what taxpayers and schoolchildren have been getting for their federal education “investments” all along. Between 1970 and 2010, as test scores went nowhere, federal per-pupil spending nearly quadrupled in real dollars, according to the Digest of Education Statistics. The additional federal mandates and the $1.3 billion in federal spending on education since 1980, when Jimmy Carter established the Department of Education, have failed to improve American education.

Both opponents and supporters of NCLB are focusing on symptoms rather than the source of the problem: federal intrusion.

The federal government mucks up education policy. Learning is best directed by those closest to the individual children receiving it. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, as well-meaning as he is, cannot possibly imagine one policy that fits every one of America’s 55 million schoolchildren.

Neither can anyone else. Each child is like a snowflake, with an individual combination of interests, aptitudes and challenges. Schools need both autonomy and accountability, and these are best provided by giving parents a choice of where to send their children, as in other nations around the world that have successful education systems.

Dictating from “Grand Central Education” has created a massive waste of taxpayer dollars and individual talents. This is true of any centralized bureaucracy. The answer is not to increase federal regulations and funding or both, but neither. Deregulate education and return power to those nearest America’s children: their parents.

Joy Pullmann is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at the Heartland Institute.