No Politician Left Behind: Wall Street Journal Editorial Department View of NCLB
Critics of President Bush's education program, the No Child Left Behind Act, now accuse him of enforcing the law on the cheap. We agree the law has its faults, and said so when it roared through Congress two years ago, but lack of funding isn't close to being one of them.
Federal spending on K-12 education will top $41 billion in 2004. Add in state and local spending, and the figure rises to a record half-trillion dollars. That's double the amount spent in 1990 and a third more than the $375 billion the U.S. will spend on defense this year. The negligible impact of this ever-increasing cash infusion on reading scores is illustrated in the nearby chart.
Nevertheless, the Democratic presidential hopefuls continue to refer to the law as an "unfunded mandate," and Republican legislatures in such states as Utah and Virginia are busy passing resolutions condemning it as "the most sweeping intrusion into state and local control of education in the history of the United States." Lawmakers in Connecticut, Maine, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio and elsewhere have threatened similar actions based on the same shaky grounds.
Leave aside for a moment this convenient rediscovery of federalism now that the federal education dollars come attached to some accountability for results. John Kerry and John Edwards both voted for this law, as did just about everybody else in Congress. The vote in the Senate was 87-10; in the House, 381-41. You can't get much more bipartisan than that. The Democratic gambit in this election season is to use the spending wedge to steal the education issue back from the Republican themes of accountability and choice.
State claims that NCLB is intrusive and underfunded are also doubtful. The law requires states to establish their own annual tests aligned with their own state standards to measure how successfully students are learning. Nothing prevents Michigan from requiring its fourth-graders to know multiplication tables that children in Arizona aren't required to know until fifth grade. What the law does demand is that states set adequate yearly progress targets -- and then meet them or lose federal money.
Most NCLB requirements -- like disaggregating certain data and identifying failing schools -- were already part of federal law dating to the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The problem, according to a new Education Next analysis by James Peyser and Robert Costrell, is that this federal law lacked teeth. "By the time the 1994 reauthorization was superseded by No Child Left Behind in 2002," say the authors, "only 21 states were in compliance with its accountability provisions."
Cost-of-compliance complaints from the states should also be put in some perspective. The Department of Education reports that states are currently sitting on nearly $6 billion in unspent federal education funds acquired between 2000 and 2002. Some $2 billion of this is Title I money that's designated for the most disadvantaged students. State officials might consider spending what they already have before begging for more federal lucre.
Our original problem with No Child Left Behind is that it was bipartisan to a fault. Thanks to influential liberal Democrats Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Representative George Miller of California, school choice provisions were watered down or simply tossed overboard. Billions in new spending were also added, but the teachers unions wouldn't allow any of it to go to vouchers for poor parents.
Nevertheless, the law at least signaled a federal commitment to standards-based reform. Given who's now complaining loudest, the reform seems to be working. Accountability measures are in place and money isn't simply flowing to the states for nothing in return.
No Politician Left Behind
Wall Street Journal
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES