Yesterday marks a dozen years since No Child Left Behind became law. Yesterday was also notable because the groundwork for NCLB’s legislative predecessor, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was laid 50 years ago as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and “Great Society” initiatives. While ESEA wouldn’t be signed into law until the following year in 1965, it, along with the creation of Head Start and increased federal intervention into higher education comprised the education components of Johnson’s War.
“Better schools” were listed as one of the “chief weapons in a more pinpointed attack” on poverty. But 49 years after ESEA was signed into law, and 12 years after No Child Left Behind was enacted, better schools are still out of reach for millions of students across the country, dimming their prospects for economic mobility and opportunity.
What do we know about No Child Left Behind at twelve?
Under No Child Left Behind, every child must be deemed proficient in reading and math by the 2014-15 school year – a fast-approaching deadline. School districts that fail to meet that universal proficiency mandate, known as “Adequate Yearly Progress,” by the coming school year face a number of sanctions under the law, ranging from crafting school improvement plans to complete restructuring of the school. While NCLB mandated universal proficiency, the law permitted states to define what it meant for a student to be proficient, and for states to set their own cut scores on state tests. Some states reconfigured the way they scored state assessments to increase the number of students who passed state tests, while becoming less transparent about students’ academic performance.
In what many researchers have deemed a “race to the bottom,” No Child Left Behind’s AYP sanction was perhaps its greatest overreach—and most significant policy flaw.
In addition to the new mandates imposed on states and local school districts, NCLB continued a trend by national policymakers to have a “program for every problem,” resulting in growth in federal intervention.
In fiscal year (FY) 2012, the federal government spent nearly $25 billion on the dozens of programs that are authorized under No Child Left Behind. This wide range of programs that falls under NCLB strains school-level management. States and school districts must spend time completing applications for competitive grant programs, monitoring federal program notices, and complying with federal reporting requirements.
When President Johnson signed the original ESEA into law, he sought to “bridge the gap between helplessness and hope.” President George W. Bush’s 2001 reauthorization included policies intended to eliminate what he called the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Yet 49 years after the ESEA’s first enactment, and on the 12 year anniversary of No Child Left Behind being signed into law, significant achievement gaps remain.
Affording states the opportunity to opt out of No Child Left Behind could reverse decades of growing, inefficient federal intervention in education. Such flexibility, offered through alternatives like the Academic Partnerships Lead Us To Success (A-PLUS) Act, would give states the opportunity to prioritize how the taxpayer dollars that are funneled through federal education programs are spent, allowing them to target spending to their communities’ most pressing education needs. It would reduce the bureaucratic compliance burden, begin to reduce federal intervention, and move toward restoring federalism in education.