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August 28, 2007

A Report Card for No Child Left Behind

EDUCATION NOTEBOOK:
A Report Card for No Child Left Behind

By Dan Lips

As students head back to school, Congress is preparing for its own schoolwork assignment due this fall: debating and voting on the future of No Child Left Behind.  The outcome of this debate will have big stakes for the future of schools in your community.

Passed in 2002, No Child Left Behind, or "NCLB," offered the most sweeping changes to federal education policy in a generation. The 1,100-page bill increased federal spending on K-12 education programs by 26 percent and created new rules and regulations governing the 96,000 public schools across the country. Most importantly, the law required states to test students annually and show consistent growth in academic achievement. It set a national goal that all children perform at grade-level in reading and math by 2014, when, thus, no child will be failing.

So, after five years, how should parents and taxpayers grade NCLB? Consider the following report card: 

Constraining federal spending: F. Democrats in Congress continue to argue that NCLB is grossly under-funded, but the truth is that federal spending on education programs has grown by 35 percent since President Clinton signed his last education budget. Federal spending on NCLP totaled $23.5 billion in 2007, compared to just $17.4 billion in 2001. This may sound like good news, but parents and taxpayers should remember that a dollar spent by Washington can't be spent by local government, and that federal dollars always come with strings attached.

Streamlining bureaucracy and red tape: F. Speaking of strings, NCLB has significantly increased bureaucracy and regulation. According to the Office of Management and Budget, NCLB has increased the annual paperwork burden on state and local communities by 7 million hours, or $140 million. Funds that could be going to the classroom are being used to pay bureaucrats to fill out paperwork.

Maintaining meaningful state testing: C. NCLB has required states to focus a lot more on testing. In some states that weren't very serious about their testing before 2001, NCLB has called attention to low-performing public schools. But states that already had quality testing systems have been forced to waste time and resources trying to comply with new federal rules. What's worse, there is good reason to believe that many states are lowering testing standards to show more students passing and to avoid federal sanctions. Researchers have called this problem "the race to the bottom" and it is likely to worsen as 2014 approaches.

Giving parents information and choices: D. NCLB was supposed to give parents better information about their children's schools, while offering parents with kids trapped in failing schools the opportunity to choose something better. Unfortunately, these goals have not been realized. School report cards are often hard to understand and many parents are not informed by their school district of their school choice options. The "race to the bottom" threatens to render some of this information meaningless and few kids have benefited from the opportunity to transfer into better schools.

Restoring state and local control: F. Congress and federal bureaucrats now control decisions that were once left to state and local officials, such as what qualifications teachers must have and what academic subjects should be included in state tests.

Improving academic achievement: Incomplete. It's simply too early to tell whether NCLB has improved student achievement. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which provides a cross-section of educational achievement data based on a sample of students across the country, there is no evidence of significant improvement in American schools since 2002. If history is any guide, however, this "incomplete" is likely to become an "F" before long.

For more than forty years, politicians in Washington, D.C. have been trying to improve America's schools by spending more money and creating new programs and regulations. But long-term measures of students' academic achievement show that little progress has been made.

Despite its poor grades, NLCB has succeeded in one important area - it has forged a national consensus around the idea that every student deserves a quality education. But this agreement should force people to rethink the strategies that have failed to improve the nation's schools.

By now, one thing should be clear: When it comes to fixing America's public schools, Washington doesn't have the answer.

Dan Lips is Education Analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

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