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NCLB Outrages

NCLB Dissatisfaction: That Dog Will Hunt

Ohanian Comment: Although this Standardisto argument pretty much dismisses NCLB critics, it still notes that the grumbling will grow.

David A. DeSchryver is former Director of Research at the Center for Education Reform.

The grumbles of dissatisfaction over No Child Left Behind (NCLB) grow louder. Lawmakers in Minnesota, North Carolina, Virginia, Utah, and other states are threatening to turn their back on the law and leave the federal dollars behind. Leading Democrats in Washington are also withdrawing their support. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass) is suggesting that he will change the law’s funding and implementation. Representative George Miller (D-California), whose support has been critical to NCLB, also expresses concern with the funding and implementation of the law, but has yet to support a makeover.

The grumbling is not surprising because the difficulty of the task offers political opportunity. It is the election season and President Bush claimed to be the education President, but he is working to change how schools operate and that is not winning him popularity. The law attempts to put teeth in the 1994 ESEA reauthorization by requiring standards, accountability, disaggregated student data, and teacher-quality (among other things). The 1994 law only suggested that such things happen. NCLB ties consequences to student achievement. It requires that parents have more information about their schools. It demands that state agencies detail the measurements of progress, such as defining adequate yearly progress (AYP) and highly qualified teachers. And all this was to be done yesterday. Indeed, the strain of swift change implies that the education President may not be the educator’s president. (Schools, after all, still operate from an agricultural-cycle calendar with summers off). Add to this a poor economy, and you’ll find a political dog that barks.

But does that dog hunt? The prominent critiques are that NCLB is under funded and that the federal government is being too prescriptive. The complaints have merit, but the arguments are nuanced and often exaggerated.

The most level approach to the funding matter (that I have seen) comes from James Peyser, the chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education, and Robert Costrell, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst . In Exploring the Cost of Accountability (see http://www.educationnews.org), the two conclude that the law may be under funded but not to the extent that many critics claim. Their conclusion stems from two observations. First, some calculations overlook the margin separating what states would have spent if NCLB did not exist compared to what NCLB requires above that level. NCLB’s cost is not the entire accountability price tag, but what is required above and beyond the state effort. Inflated estimates ignore that distinction. Second, some estimates are based on reports that directly link spending and performance – that continual academic progress requires escalated funding. Yet, these reports, which were produced for state “adequacy” litigation, have been largely discredited. So although NCLB could use more funding it is not as much as some critics claim.

The federalism question is more politically interesting. Critics of the law suggest that the law demands too much. There are good arguments for and against this position. The federal government does demand that certain things be done and certain information gathered. For example, all states must have content and achievement standards and aligned assessments, school report card procedures, and statewide systems for holding schools and districts accountable for academic achievement. There must be annual assessments in grades 3-8 that include all students. But the state controls the definition of AYP, of state certification, and the type of exams. As a result, the rigor of the law is in their hands. But even if the rigor is extreme for a district that has done little for accountability (thus making any requirements seem difficult), is it reasonable to allow them to avoid these mandates because they are in an accountability deficit? Not likely. And so goes the debate.

Considering the merits of the financial and mandate critiques, there is enough to conclude that this dog does indeed hunt. The political backlash to NCLB has merit--although not as much as the critics claim. The devil is in the details, but for purposes of political fodder that may not matter much. Small predicaments provide large targets in an election year. The grumbling will grow.

— David A. DeSchryver
The Doyle Report


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