No Child Left Behind: The Dangers of Centralized Education Policy

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The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), whichthe Bush administration claims as its proudestachievement in domestic policy, directly contradictsthe principles of an "ownership society,"which the administration is promoting in areassuch as Social Security reform. The administrationrecognizes that the educational policies ofthe last four decades, a period of almost uninterruptedcentralization, have failed, but its remedyis yet more centralization.

The NCLB statute is a reform strategy at warwith itself. It virtually guarantees massive evasionof its own intent, ordering state education agenciesto do things that they mostly don’t want todo. Washington will be forced either to allow thestates great leeway in how they implement NCLBor to make NCLB more detailed, prescriptive, andtop-heavy. If Washington chooses the former, thestatute might as well not exist; if the latter, federalpolicymakers will increasingly resemble Sovietcentral planners trying to improve economic performanceby micromanaging decisions fromMoscow. NCLB may end up giving us the worstpossible scenario: unconstitutional consolidationof power in Washington over the schools, withthat power being used to promote mediocrityrather than excellence.

It is too early to know for certain which scenariowill prevail, but it is already clear that stateand local education officials are skillfully protectingtheir interests in ways that undermine theintent of NCLB. Especially telling has been theirwidespread dishonest reporting in at least fourareas: graduation rates, school violence, qualifiedteachers, and proficiency tests. As it becomesincreasingly clear that the states can satisfy therequirements of NCLB by lowering their standards,there will likely be a "race to the bottom."

Instead of using centralized decrees to turnmediocre institutions into excellent ones, as theyhave been trying but failing to do for the last severaldecades, the state and federal governmentsshould be empowering individual families to"vote with their feet" by transferring to theschools of their own choice.

The key locus for such revolutionary reforms isthe states. The best contribution the national governmentcan make to educational improvement isto avoid educational policymaking and allowstates to experiment with school choice programs.

Lawrence A. Uzzell

Lawrence A. Uzzell is an independent researcher and former staff member of the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. House and Senate committees on education.