A Failing Grade

Bush thought he had a real winner with his “No Child Left Behind” education plan, passed in early 2002. It was touted as the cornerstone of his social policy. But, as Alexander Russo writes in Slate, the Bush plan is now in serious trouble:

“NCLB was supposed to improve schools by holding them to higher academic standards and letting students transfer out of failing schools. Instead, over the past few months especially, this massive education law has generated little more than bad news, indifference, and increasing resistance.

NCLB may well have been too fast out of the gate and too crude in how it ‘rates’ schools. Even after a built-in yearlong delay, the law’s school rating system sets an extremely high standard for academic achievement, compared to what most schools have experienced in the past, and relies on a simplistic thumbs-up, thumbs-down approach instead of giving schools letter grades or numerical scores.

NCLB is just too weak to open up real options. The provision that’s intended to let students transfer out of failing schools in fact leaves school districts and states an abundance of ways to prevent students from transferring or to narrowly limit where they can go. As a result, there are often few really high-achieving schools that will take students, and understandably little interest from parents in uprooting their children for marginal improvement.”

The CEO of the Chicago Public Schools (yes, CEO) Arne Duncan has emerged as a harsh critic of the plan, arguing that federal dollars spent on moving kids around the system would be better applied to building new schools, providing more books and offering more teacher training. As The Chicago Tribune reports:

“Duncan’s comments came as Chicago Board of Education officials revealed that of the 270,757 students offered the chance to transfer under the law’s controversial ‘choice’ provisions, only 7 percent, or 19,246, had applied — still thousands more than the few scarce seats available.

Many parents may have felt like Kim Plaxico, who said the odds of winning a transfer were so slim it made ‘no sense’ to even apply. After learning her local school was so chronically low-scoring that her child could transfer, Plaxico said, she put her child in a private school.”

But Chicago-based Russo doesn’t think school accountability — which is based loosely on a Clinton framework — is a lost cause. NCLB could work, he says, if some key loopholes are closed and students are given real choices. There’s also enough money for it, he says. “Choice will not break the bank.”

But the president has no plans to revamp his failing program, or to increase funding at all; he wants to cut funding for his plan by $200 million. Bob Herbert writes, in the New York Times:

“The proposed cuts, according to Congressional officials who have studied the budget proposal, would eliminate a high school dropout prevention program, would prevent more than 32,000 children with limited proficiency in English from participating in federally supported English instruction programs, would drastically cut high school equivalency and college assistance for migrant children, and would end the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship program.

The proposal would also cut more than 20,000 teachers from professional training programs, despite Mr. Bush’s promise that teachers would “get the training they need to raise educational standards.” And it would completely eliminate training for teachers in computer technology.”

The cut comes at a time when schools budgets are already dwindling. Across the country, The Christian Science Monitor reports, non-academic programs like music are being cut to cope with fiscal constraints and to accomodate the increased emphasis on test scores.

“Budget woes have caused school districts to weigh the arts against desirable amenities such as smaller class sizes. In addition, state testing standards and the No Child Left Behind Act force school districts to focus time and resources on core subjects. ‘Music education programs get cut because decent people are trying to make tough decisions in hard times,’ says Michael Blakeslee, deputy executive director of the National Association for Music Education. ‘However, you can’t cut music without cutting something important out of kids’ lives.'”


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2019 demands.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.