Commentary

Answer to NCLB Failure Is School Choice

This article appeared on Foxnews.com on May 19, 2006.

Consistency, they say, is the hobgoblin of little minds. If so, then for the last 40 years federal education policymakers have suffered from hobgoblins aplenty, with the small-minded feds delivering two things with great consistency: empty promises to parents and money to educrats.

The latest news on the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) — that not one state will meet the law’s “highly qualified teacher” requirements by the statute’s deadline — is just one among many recent pieces of evidence proving that the hobgoblins are as energetic as ever.

When the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was passed in 1965, it was heralded as a breakthrough that would eradicate poverty’s deleterious effects on academic success. Indeed, President Lyndon Johnson was so enthusiastic about it that he boldly declared that “no law I have signed or will ever sign means more to the future of America.”

A decade after the ESEA’s hope-filled launch, Rand Corporation researcher Milbrey McLaughlin examined the performance of Title I — the heart of ESEA — and discovered just what it had produced: few discernable academic gains, but brand new special interest groups that feasted on taxpayer dollars and put their desires ahead of the children they were supposed to help.

Fast-forward to NCLB, and little has changed. Despite promises from President Bush and others that the latest version of the ESEA would empower parents, the special interests are still getting their way, dodging accountability and sucking in ever-more taxpayer dollars.

The hobgoblins’ recent progress has been easy to follow. More than a year ago the Department of Education caved into pressure from educrats nationwide and started to let states bypass many of NCLB’s rules.

In April of this year, the department reported that very few eligible children were using NCLB’s public school choice provisions, largely because “more than half of school districts didn’t even tell parents that their children were eligible for these options until after the school year had already started.”

Two weeks after that revelation, the Associated Press reported that nearly 2 million children, predominantly minorities, had been systematically excluded from NCLB’s accountability system.

Finally, there was this month’s Department of Education announcement that not a single state would meet NCLB’s “highly qualified teacher” requirement by the law’s deadline.

Of course, none of this failure has kept education’s special interests from getting richer: Federal spending on programs falling under NCLB has grown from $17.4 billion in 2001 to $23.3 billion in 2006.

So how have policymakers’ often well-intended efforts invariably been corrupted? Milbrey McLaughlin discovered the answer back in 1975, explaining that at least when it came to the ESEA, “the teachers, administrators, and others whose salaries are paid by Title I, or whose budgets are balanced by its funds, are, in practice, a more powerful constituency than those poor parents who are disillusioned by its unfulfilled promise.”

It’s practically a political law: The people who are employed by government programs tend to gain the most from them, and are therefore the programs’ most powerful lobbyists. And, naturally, they tend to lobby for as much money, and as little accountability for their work, as they can get.

It’s really quite logical. People who draw their livelihoods from government schooling programs have huge incentives to exert political pressure aimed at maximizing their income and freedom.

In contrast, while they certainly care about education, the taxpayers footing the bills can’t possibly match the vested interests’ lobbying intensity. Taxpayers have far too many special interests to fight beyond just those in education to be able to concentrate on any one or two.

And parents? With their own jobs and children’s daily needs to worry about, they simply can’t devote themselves to the non-stop political warfare that the special interests can wage.

So what’s to be done?

The answer is actually pretty clear. We must open our minds and do something other than consistently create more layers of government. We must, in fact, take power away from government by letting parents choose their children’s schools and bypass the special interests. Only then will we hobble the hobgoblins forever.

Neal McCluskey is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.