The Left Is Half Right on NCLB

Over at the popular leftish blog Crooks and Liars, Bluegal laments the No Child Left Behind Act, which is up for reauthorization this month. The nearly 100 comments on her post overwhelmingly echo her negative views. Nevertheless, it seems that she, her commenters, and the vast majority of Democrats in Congress want the law reauthorized. Why?

The reason for this apparent contradiction is that NCLB is only the latest incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which has been directing federal tax dollars to public schools since 1965. Leftish critics of No Child want to dilute or repeal most of the testing requirements introduced to the law in 2002, while increasing its funding. They believe that the testing provisions of NCLB are ineffective and likely harmful, but that federal spending is good for American education so long as it is not narrowly channeled into high-stakes testing. They’re half right.

As Neal McCluskey and I demonstrate in our new NCLB study (which we’ll be releasing on the Hill tomorrow), the evidence shows that the law’s testing and teacher qualification regimes have failed to improve achievement or narrow the gaps between groups. So the left’s skepticism on this point is justified. But the left-liberal goal of securing higher federal spending without bureaucratic “accountability” is both unattainable and undesirable.

A perennial blind spot of both major political parties is that they love to seize new powers and revenue streams while they’re in office, failing to realize that those same powers and dollars will inevitably fall into the hands of their ideological opponents. The Democrats gave us ESEA, and the Republicans eventually turned it into NCLB. As long as Republicans are elected they will try to hold schools bureaucratically “accountable” for the federal funding they receive – particularly given that real federal per pupil education spending has risen by a factor of 18 or so since the ESEA was passed in 1965. So even if the left manages to enact a “hands off but wallet open” version of NCLB this fall, it will live a short policy life, succumbing again to federal testing/performance mandates the next time Republicans control Congress.

For the sake of argument, though, would it do any good if it were a realistic long-term goal? Since it took Republicans a long time to get around to imposing the testing standards of NCLB, we actually have nearly four decades of experience with the ESEA with which to answer that question. Did higher spending translate into higher achievement? No. Federal spending went from about $50 per student in 1965 to nearly $900 per student in 2003-04. Total per pupil spending doubled to more than $11,000 over the same period. But at the end of their public schooling careers, students perform no better in reading and math today than they did nearly four decades ago. They’ve actually gotten worse in science (data from the Long Term Trends studies of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for 17 year-olds).

If liberals want to stop Washington from meddling in the classroom, as most claim, there is only one way to go about it: stop collecting and spending federal tax dollars on it. So long as American schools are beholden to the federal purse, they will be puppets on the end of federal purse strings – strings held, on a recurring basis, by Republicans.