The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) – one of the grandest initiatives of the Bush presidency -- is in trouble. Few outside the small band of Bush administration brothers – and sisters – believe that the law is even remotely close to achieving its goals. Its reauthorization is stalled in Congress and the big debate right now is whether it should be scrapped altogether – or seriously reformed.
That is in sharp contrast to the mood five years ago when NCLB was passed. Both liberals and conservatives enthusiastically supported the law at the time, albeit for entirely different reasons. Liberals saw in it great promise to eradicate long-standing inequities and close the persistent achievement gap between poor, minority kids and rich, white ones. Conservatives, on the other hand, saw the act as a vehicle to reform the dysfunctional public school K-12 monopoly and improve the overall quality of education.
To accomplish all these remarkable goals, the act did two things: One, it substantially boosted spending on Title 1 – the main source of federal funding for schools. Title 1 is part of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act that President Lyndon Johnson signed into law to help states cope with the cost of educating poor and at-risk kids. Since 2002 No Child Left Behind was approved, Title 1 spending has gone up by about 40 percent and currently stands at about $23.5 billion. (Federal K-12 spending is a little over 8 percent of the total K-12 spending in the country.)
And two, as a condition of receiving federal money, states had to commit to annually testing the reading and math skills of all kids from 3rd to 8th grades and report the results by race, income, disability and a number of other categories. An ever rising percentage of kids in each sub-group had to test "proficient" in both subjects every year – with 100 percent kids achieving proficiency by 2014. States also had to pledge to "reform" schools that missed their targets a few years in a row – or risk losing their federal dollars.
The hope of liberals was that disaggregating the testing data would expose achievement gaps between the advantaged and disadvantaged kids and shame states into redoubling their efforts to educate lagging groups. And conservatives hoped that, even though the act did not directly attach federal dollars to the backpacks of kids to take to whichever school they wanted to, the requirement that persistently failing schools give kids an option to transfer to another public/charter school or pay for extra tutoring, would be sufficient to inject some competition into the ossified public school monopoly.
None of this has happened.
According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, the most reliable gauge of student learning and widely regarded as the nation's report card, in 2002, when NCLB went into effect, 13 percent of the nation's black 8th grade students were proficient in reading – meaning reading at grade level. By 2005 that number had dropped to 12 percent. The reading proficiency of white 8th graders dropped by two points too. The only bright spot was in the math proficiency of 4th graders, where black proficiency rates went up from 5 percent in 2000 to 13 percent in 2005 and poor kids from 8 percent to 19 percent. But this is still far below the 47 percent proficiency rate for whites in 2005 – and way below the 100 percent proficiency goal for all by 2014.
The choice component of the act has proven to be too weak to trigger broader school reforms, both contributors to this Reason Roundtable agree. Erin Dillon, a policy analyst at Education Sector, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, points out that five years after NCLB, a meager 2 percent of kids have exercised the option of transferring out of low performing schools, largely because of the lack of availability of better schools. Meanwhile, Andrew Coulson, the director of education policy at the free market CATO Institute in Washington D.C. , points out that only a tiny fraction of eligible kids have availed of the private tutoring option, mainly because schools don't even tell parents about it.
Still, Dillon believes that the No Child Left Behind has played a valuable – if imperfect -- role in putting information about school performance in the hands of parents. She writes, "Throwing it out would move us back into the dark ages on school performance." What's more, this would be bad for the future of school choice, she argues, "In order to have a functioning education marketplace, parents and students—consumers—need access to information about schools."
Coulson completely disagrees. As far as he is concerned, the act can't be killed fast enough. It has expanded the role of federal government in education and subverted the principles of federalism. These principles are not just a matter of fidelity to the constitution – although they are certainly that. Innovative market reforms can happen only at the state – not federal – level and therefore it is essential that they be left free from the diktats of Uncle Sam. "NCLB is an ineffective and unconstitutional distraction from the sorts of true market policies that actually improve achievement, efficiency, graduation rates, social outcomes, and overall parental satisfaction," he writes.