Left Behind

The failures of No Child Left Behind could hurt Bush in the general election.

Thu Jan. 8, 2004 3:00 AM EST

Thursday marks the two-year anniversary of President Bush's landmark education reform legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act. The law required schools, teachers, and students, under threat of federal sanctions, to meet steadily rising standards of performance as measured by regular testing, the ultimate goal being "to close the achievement gap ... so that no child is left behind." All students are supposed to be performing at grade level by 2013.

Democrats, and many teachers, criticize NCLB as underfunded and overreliant on testing, and say it stifles local initiative. In his weekly radio address, Bush defended the act agains these charges:

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"Some critics have objected to these reforms because they believe our expectations are too high, or that it is unfair to hold all students to the same standards regardless of background, or that we're punishing schools that are not making progress. Our reforms insist on high standards because we know every child can learn. Our reforms call for testing because the worst discrimination is to ignore a school's failure to teach every child."

The law passed with bipartisan support (the Senate voted 98-1 in favor). But the consensus has unraveled. Nancy Pelosi, the top House Democrat, said this week:

"For Democrats, that agreement represented a call to action and a strong commitment to students, parents, and teachers. And we have fought for the resources agreed to in the bill. For Republicans, that agreement was an empty promise. Again and again, President Bush and congressional Republicans have refused to honor their commitment -- for 2004 they provided nearly $8 billion less for No Child Left Behind than they had promised just two years before."

Democratic presidential candidates, sensing an opportunity, have started to criticize NCLB. Howard Dean says:

"The president promised better schools. Instead, he has delivered more paperwork, lower standards and higher property taxes, as state and local governments scramble to comply with this unfunded federal mandate."

Dean highlights one major criticism: it can't do the good it promised because its an under-funded program. In fiscal years 2002 through the current 2004, Congress authorized President Bush to spend billions more on the initiative than he requested. Sen. Ted Kennedy, one of the original architects of the bill, said:

"The president's budget fails to recognize that strong schools are as important to our future as a strong defense. Parents and communities are fighting every day for better schools with high standards for their children, and they expect the federal government to do its part."

Dick Gephardt objects to what he considers unachievable standards:

"George Bush is deliberately setting up public schools to fail so he can say there is no choice but to take money away from public schools. There's only one way to fix No Child Left Behind, and that is to leave George Bush behind…George Bush set school standards so high and funding so low, the schools that need the most help have no prayer of meeting the standards."

Politicians aren't the only ones complaining about the law, according to the New York Times. The Reading, Pa. school board sued the state and federal governments, arguing that NCLB has created an unfair financial burden. Cheshire, Conn. recently turned down $80,000 in federal school funding tied to NCLB, arguing that the bureaucracy and paperwork involved in dividing students into racial and ethnic groupings and testing their abilities wasn't worth it. And in Utah, Republican legislator Kory Hodaway has introduced a bill that would prevent the state from accepting $100 million in funding tied to NCLB, saying the law amounts to "an unfunded mandate."

Critics have other concerns, too. Some worry that its focus is on testing, not teaching. The New York Times says sometimes the problem isn’t the school:

"The administration's desire to hold schools accountable, particularly when it comes to minority performance, is exactly the right priority. But there has always been a danger that the program will be too much about testing and too little about teaching. That's bound to be the case as long as the federal government lets states ignore the quality of teachers."

The problem with relying on tests to determine progress, of course, is that teachers then begin to "teach to the tests" and end up ignoring other material. The Capital Times:

"Nearly everything taught in school is now geared at doing well on those tests -- either that or become a failing school and suffer all the consequences that go with.Because the federal "reforms" focus solely on reading and math, schools are concentrating on those subjects and sacrificing others -- like history, for example."

But the issue is complicated, and that some of the act's original intentions have proved harder than expected to put into practice argues for a bipartisan approach to fixing its flaws, as James Traub, writing in the New York Times Magazine last month, suggests:

"We are going to hear more about NCLB as the presidential race heats up next year. I herewith propose a pre-emptive compromise. Liberal Democrats and teachers' unions and school professionals should stop trying to prove that No Child Left Behind is a failure and should stop pretending that money is the cure for everything; Republicans should accept that money does, however, matter terribly if you wish to attract the kind of teachers who can make a difference. The law itself should be subjected to the kind of tinkering that incredibly complicated legislation generally requires. And then, perhaps, we could practice some real nation building at home."