Reauthorizing NCLB May Be Exercise in Futility

September 24, 2007

Reauthorizing NCLB May Be Exercise in Futility
Indiana Writers Group column for Sept. 26 and thereafter
715 words

By Andrea Neal

    When the President’s chief education policy upsets both Reagan-style conservatives and the teachers’ union, he’s got a problem. That problem brought Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to Indianapolis last week on a bus tour to promote reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.
    Spellings is trying valiantly to convince the country that NCLB is working and that student achievement is on the rise. There’s modest evidence to that effect – some standardized test scores are going up at some grade levels – but it’s not dramatic or across the board. Making things harder for the Bush administration, the bipartisan support that led to NCLB’s passage in 2001 is no longer present. Congress is more Democratic and, with a presidential election imminent, more sensitive to grass-roots lobbying.
    On the conservative side, complaints with NCLB are ideological and practical. The law is an administrative nightmare that results in too much federal intrusion in state policymaking. In 2006, state and local education officials spent 6.7 million hours and more than $140 million complying with NCLB paperwork. It’s also way too costly. The White House's budget request for fiscal 2008 would boost NCLB spending to $24.4 billion, a 41 percent increase over 2001. Although the law contains achievement goals and accountability standards that most everyone supports, some states have “dumbed down” their tests or scoring systems in order to boost passage rates.
    And wait, there’s more. The law violates historic understanding of the proper relationship between state and federal government. It doesn’t get to the core of what’s wrong with education in the United States: a public education system that forces most children to go to a school of the government’s choice, not the parents’.
    The union, as one might expect, has a different list of objections. The law is good, but focuses too much on test scores as a measure of pupil achievement. It undermines local school district authority, and shifts too much money to for-profit programs that offer tutoring services or manage failing schools. That hurts the public school system. The law doesn’t address the real issues, such as smaller class size, school repair and modernization and early childhood education. The law is inadequately funded, and punishes schools with a one-size-fits-all mentality.
    The reauthorization bill at the moment is making neither side happy. The legislation would maintain the key provisions of NCLB, requiring states to conduct annual testing and to demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" toward a 2014 deadline when all students must be proficient in reading and math. It would also allow states more leeway in judging student progress. The conservatives dislike the continued “nationalization” of schools. The teachers’ union is up in arms over language that would encourage performance pay plans, calling that an assault on collective bargaining and organized labor. Some Democrats in Congress want to strip the law of the few provisions that conservatives like, in particular those that give parents of students in failing schools more options of where to send their children.
    Spellings is committed to the law, which she says is “absolutely” making a difference. She is tired of excuses about why the law won’t work. “Five and a half years ago when we passed the law, very few states had annual assessment. Now we have 50 states with annual measurement systems,” she points out with pride.
    History is not on the administration’s side. The risk is that Congress will reauthorize NCLB, but make it far more expensive and no more effective. This has happened with virtually every federal education-spending bill that Congress has passed since Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s.
    One idea for salvaging NCLB is H.R. 1539. Under this proposal, a state could file with the feds a “declaration of intent” to assume full responsibility for the education of its students and so opt out of NCLB. These states would continue to receive federal money as long as they maintained rigorous testing and could prove proficiency by their students. Isn’t that the goal of education reform?
    The proposal is being pushed mostly by Republican House members, but would likely satisfy the teachers’ union as well. They may be polar opposites politically, but both sides share a deep and abiding fear that the federal government should not be micromanaging education.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at


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