NCLB Compromise Looking Pretty Bad

Is pre-kindergarten part of elementary and secondary education? By definition, no. But according to preliminary reports about what is in a compromise to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act – really, the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – a preschool “competitive grant” program will be added to the law. And that’s just one of several troubling items that will reportedly be in the final legislation.

One hallmark of good lawmaking are laws that are easily understood by the people, and larding on lots of items not germane to the topic of a law is one way to move away from that democratic ideal. Adding pre-k to the ESEA lards on, though as I’ll discuss in a moment, apparently the preschool addition isn’t all that will heavily complicate the legislation.

The bigger problem with expanding federal funding and reach on preschool is that the evidence is preschool has few if any lasting benefits, at least that have been rigorously documented for any large, modern efforts. Infamously, that includes Head Start and Early Head Start, which the federal government’s own studies have found to be largely impotent, and in the case of Early Head Start, potentially detrimental to some groups. The compromise would apparently also keep the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which federal research has also shown to be impotent or even counterproductive, but at least it is k-12.

The second major strike against this compromise, assuming the early reporting is correct, is that it will apparently be very complex. This is a big problem: Not only is complicated legislation inaccessible to the public, it can enable ambitious executives to exploit impenetrability and essentially write law through regulation. And if we have learned any lesson from the Obama administration’s NCLB waivers – and the wisdom of the Founders – it is that presidents will tend to use whatever power they are allowed.

Third, the compromise apparently would require states to intervene in the bottom five percent of schools based on test-score performance; schools with less than two-thirds of kids graduating; and schools where various achievement gaps aren’t closing. That sounds like NCLB-lite: not as many schools and districts directly subject to state and federal control, but still quite a few.

Finally – at least until more information comes out – there is no evidence that the compromise eschews the back-door veto over state plans that both the House and Senate bills would give the Secretary of Education. This would continue to keep great power in the hands of the executive branch, albeit more shadowy by requiring that the Secretary keep saying “no” to things he doesn’t like rather than just saying what he wants. But that’s what telephones and visits to states are for, right?

Oh, one more thing: This is all unconstitutional.