In what appears to be a desperate attempt to salvage some semblance of a legacy from a lame-duck period, President Bush indulged in a bit of political theater last week.
He assembled a group of civil rights leaders at the White House and herded them into the Rose Garden to plead with Congress to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, the 2001 bill that sought to establish federal performance standards for schoolchildren and ensure that all children achieved proficiency in them by 2014.
Congress would do well to decline the honor.
Unfortunately, failing to act would leave the original law in place. Since most politically feasible reforms would make an already flawed law significantly worse, however, that might be the least objectionable outcome.
The centerpiece of No Child Left Behind is a requirement that all students be tested in every year between third and eighth grade and once in high school for proficiency in basic academic skills. The intention — shifting federal attention from subsidizing educational inputs, such as special curricula or a “program for every problem,” to testing results and encouraging improvement — was potentially useful. But implementation has been disappointing.
Since schools that do not show improvement on standardized tests can lose federal funding and states still set the standards for “proficiency,” a perverse result of the act has been that some states have lowered their standards to avoid federal sanctions. Instead of giving parents more useful information the result of the law is to give them less.
In addition, the law’s paperwork requirements have added about 7 million hours to the annual compliance burden of federal education programs, according to the Office of Management and Budget. Instead of directing more money to classrooms, the act has increased administrative burdens. And the federal government now has more control over issues that were once determined, and rightly so, at the state or local level.
The original intent of the act was to consolidate and streamline existing federal education programs, but that hasn’t happened. So the No Child Left Behind requirements are piled on top of all the existing federal education mandates.
A couple of Republican legislators have proposed a reform called Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (A-PLUS, cute, eh?) that would allow states to opt out of No Child Left Behind and reallocate funds toward programs determined at more local levels.
Unfortunately, this reform has little chance of passage in the current Congress. Almost all the proposed reforms that have a chance of passage involve even more federal control.
The least-worst course, then, is to ignore the president’s plea and work on reforms to the flawed No Child Left Behind act in a non-election year.