Commentary

No Standards Left Behind

In early 2002, Republicans passed the No Child Left Behind Act, the most intrusive federal education law in American history. Five years later, with NCLB up for reauthorization, they can’t jump ship fast enough.

The list of Republicans already overboard is long. Several of them are Bush administration alumni, including former Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene Hickok. Numerous House and Senate Republicans instead have endorsed the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success Act (A-PLUS), which would let states run their own schools without losing federal funds. And on Wednesday, Rep. Scott Garrett (R., New Jersey) introduced the Local Education Authority Returns Now Act (LEARN), to let states opt out of NCLB and give federal education money directly back to state citizens in the form of tax credits.

NCLB’s biggest problem is that it’s designed to help Washington politicians appear all things to all people. To look tough on bad schools, it requires states to establish standards and tests in reading, math and science, and it requires all schools to make annual progress toward 100% reading and math proficiency by 2014. To preserve local control, however, it allows states to set their own standards, “adequate yearly progress” goals, and definitions of proficiency. As a result, states have set low standards, enabling politicians to declare victory amid rising test scores without taking any truly substantive action.

NCLB’s perverse effects are illustrated by Michigan, which dropped its relatively demanding standards when it had over 1,500 schools on NCLB’s first “needs improvement” list. The July 2002 transformation of then-state superintendent Tom Watkins captures NCLB’s power. Early that month, when discussing the effects of state budget cuts on Michigan schools, Mr. Watkins declared that cuts or no cuts, “We don’t lower standards in this state!” A few weeks later, thanks to NCLB, Michigan cut drastically the percentage of students who needed to hit proficiency on state tests for a school to make adequate yearly progress. “Michigan stretches to do what’s right with our children,” Mr. Watkins said, “but we’re not going to shoot ourselves in the foot.”

Today, evasion syndrome is epidemic. According to a report last month from the Institute of Education Sciences, a research branch of the U.S. Department of Education, while states are declaring success on their tests, almost none have standards even close to those of the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress — the so-called “Nation’s Report Card.” Almost all states have set their standards below NAEP’s “proficiency” level.

In light of its perverse effects, as well as complaints that it is underfunded, over-prescriptive and so on, NCLB is not wildly popular. When first asked what their attitudes were about NCLB, a recent Educational Testing Service survey found that only 41% of Americans were favorable, while 43% were not. An Ohio University poll in May found the more people actually knew about NCLB the less they liked it.

Thankfully, as bills like A-PLUS and LEARN make clear, many Republicans plan to fight the President on reauthorization. Indeed, A-PLUS alone has 60 Republican cosponsors in the House — including Minority Whip Roy Blunt — up from the 33 Republicans who voted against the original NCLB. Nevertheless, the administration and many congressional Republicans are sticking with NCLB. President Bush continually declares reauthorization “one of his top priorities.” On his Web site, House Minority Leader John Boehner, who chaired the Committee on Education and the Workforce during NCLB’s first time around, mystifyingly declares the law “a huge step in the right direction for Americans who believe Big Government is not the solution to the problems with our education system.”

The threat now is that Democrats will take advantage of Republican infighting and greatly increase spending under NCLB, something party leaders like Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy and California Rep. George Miller have been demanding almost since the moment Mr. Bush signed it into law.

But Democrats do so at their peril. While the party’s constituencies such as teachers unions and school administrators love Washington’s money, they hate tests and standards. Maybe that’s why an even smaller percentage of Democrats (35%, according to the Education Testing Service poll) support NCLB than do Republicans (52%). And Democrats will almost certainly have to preserve those hated components to get the extra dough.

In the end, neither Republicans nor Democrats should fight for NCLB. It hasn’t helped either party, and it has hurt children all over the country. Indeed, if NCLB has taught one thing, it is this: When Washington gets involved in education, no one wins.

Neal McCluskey is an education analyst at the Cato Institute and author of the recently published Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education (Rowman and Littlefield).