Time To Leave Behind No Child Left Behind

Education standards sacrificed on the altar of politics

September 5, 2007

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WASHINGTON — Five years after its passage, President Bush’s sweeping education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), is scheduled to expire later this year. In “End It, Don’t Mend It,” Andrew Coulson and Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom argue against its reauthorization, deconstructing its provisions as a Rube Goldbergian legislative contraption of unenforceable mandates, diminished standards, government interference and unintended — but thoroughly predictable — practical consequences.

“Despite promises from supporters that NCLB would be fundamentally different from previous federal education policies – focusing on academic outcomes rather than inputs like money, school buildings, or improved technology — it shares a critical feature with its predecessors,” note Coulson and McCluskey. “Its ultimate design was driven chiefly by political rather than educational goals, dooming it to failure.”

Those failures, Coulson and McCluskey contend, were the inevitable result of the politicization of education, and are not soluble by merely “tweaking” the existing legislation. Instead, the failures of NCLB are systemic: the unholy spawn of politics mating with education, which rendered the legislation politically palatable, but logically incoherent — full of the letter of accountability, but utterly empty of its spirit.

Though supporters of NCLB point to seemingly rosy findings on some state tests, Coulson and McCluskey show that there is more bad news than good; in fact, there is evidence that NCLB may have slowed — or even partly reversed — gains achieved before its passage. They argue that the only way to ensure true accountability is school choice at the state and local levels — allowing parents the freedom to pull their children from schools that don’t work.

“While NCLB’s supposed goal is to force public schools to establish and meet high standards, it actually encourages states to keep standards as low as possible while providing the veneer of tough accountability,” write Coulson and McCluskey. “State policymakers, abetted by federal officials who respond to special interests, have been unable to resist this opening, often setting standards as low as they can, defining proficiency as loosely as possible, and administering easy tests, thereby avoiding the law’s penalties to the greatest extent possible while still claiming success.”

Policy Analysis #599: http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=8680

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