Commentary

End, Don’t Mend, No Child Left Behind

Congress has taken up renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act, with a major hearing in the House education committee. Unfortunately, despite little evidence that NCLB has done any good, there’s no reason to believe Congress will improve it. After more than a century of industrial-era schooling, policy-makers are still unwilling to do what’s necessary and turn public education on its head.

NCLB’s results have been ambiguous at best. The most positive news has come from the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank, which found that scores on state tests have risen under NCLB. But CEP only had usable pre- and post-NCLB scores for 13 states and could do full analyses for only seven.

Nationally representative measures offer worse news: Improvements on National Assessment of Educational Progress math exams have slowed under NCLB, and reading outcomes have either stagnated or declined, depending on the grade.

These outcomes should be no surprise. The federal Institute for Education Sciences recently confirmed that states are in a race to the bottom on standards, setting them as low as possible so they’re easy to hit. But that’s just symptomatic of a more basic problem: No matter how revolutionary politicians say laws like NCLB are, they always preserve the same institutional structures we’ve had for more than a century, in which politicians and bureaucrats have all the power, and parents and children have none.

So why the race to the bottom? State officials are protecting themselves. NCLB’s public school choice provisions are being sabotaged by school districts’ eleventh-hour notifications to parents who qualify for choice and severe restrictions on the choices offered.

Students’ rights to leave “persistently dangerous” schools? Neutralized by definitions of “persistently dangerous” that would keep Ted Bundy High in the clear.

Theoretically, federal officials could close NCLB’s loopholes and get tough with defiant states and districts, but they won’t. Administrator groups, teacher unions and school board associations all have potent lobbyists, PR staffs and government relations departments. Far too few politicians will risk forcing high standards on them.

This makes it easy to understand why NCLB is failing, and why since the beginning of the 1970s — the earliest period from which we have continuous data — achievement has stagnated even though inflation-adjusted school spending per pupil has more than doubled. Few reauthorization proposals show any recognition that central educational planning can’t work. Most would tinker around NCLB’s edges, as if the law needed only fine-tuning. The House Education and Labor Committee’s draft legislation is a case in point, increasing “flexibility” here, decreasing it there, but ultimately preserving top-down control.

Washington needs to get out of education altogether. Congressional meddling is unconstitutional: You won’t find “education” or “schooling” anywhere in the federal government’s enumerated powers. Both history and political reality make clear that the feds will never enforce strong standards; even if they did, they would never be knowledgeable or nimble enough to meet the nation’s diverse needs or foster critical innovation.

Thankfully, two House proposals would move Washington in the right direction. The Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success Act of 2007 (APLUS) would give block grants to states that choose to run their own school systems and free them from many federal rules and regulations. Even better, the Local Education Authority Returns Now Act (LEARN) would let states opt out of NCLB. Instead of giving money to state educrats, LEARN would offer a credit to state taxpayers.

Neither of these proposals is a full solution. Both would keep the feds in the funding game, and as long as Washington has education money, it will threaten to take control. But they would be big steps forward.

Neal McCluskey is a policy analyst with Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom and co-author of the new study “End It, Don’t Mend It: What to Do With No Child Left Behind.”