Politics & Policy

The Law that Dare Not Speak Its Name

On the trail of No Child Left Behind.

As the new school year and the climactic period of the presidential election both commence, the future of federal education policy is murkier than ever before.

Both national parties manifest grave internal schisms over education, even as today’s federal policy centerpiece, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, is treated by both candidates for the Oval Office as if it didn’t quite exist and certainly ought not be discussed in polite company.

Strikingly, while Senators Obama and McCain both talked about education in their acceptance speeches and each sought (briefly) to sketch how it would be different if he is elected, neither even mentioned NCLB or suggested how he would deal with it.

In the education sphere, that’s roughly equivalent to talking about America’s foreign and defense challenges without mentioning Iraq. NCLB is the 800-pound gorilla of federal K-12 education policy and the foremost topic of conversation whenever this domain is touched on. In fact, as I roam the land, it’s the only federal education issue that non-educators invariably ask about. Yet in their major campaign kick-off addresses, both wannabee presidents managed to talk about education without disclosing that they’re even aware of its existence.

We know they are, because each has referred to NCLB, at least a little, in other settings, with McCain — sometimes — suggesting that he’s in favor of keeping it in approximately its present form while Obama nearly always indicates that major changes are called for.

But not at their conventions and not so far (to my knowledge) as they’ve begun to stump the country in the days since. Even the 2008 GOP platform never uses the phrase “No Child Left Behind” though it alludes to this statute in a brief section on the federal role in primary-secondary education. (The Democratic platform mentions NCLB once — but only to promise to “fix” its “failures and broken promises.”)

There are plausible political explanations for this avoidance. Many voters know little about NCLB’s actual provisions but practically nobody loves it by name and those who know what’s in it, even those who like much of it, are persuaded that it needs a makeover if only because its implementation challenges have proven so daunting and its critics so numerous. Polls indicate that “No Child Left Behind” has become a “damaged brand” even as they also reveal widespread support for such key NCLB ingredients as standards, assessment, accountability, and the right to exit a bad school for a better one.

Politicians hustling votes may therefore be wise to avoid this brand-name altogether and talk instead about students, teachers, schools, competitiveness, choice, achievement and other crowd-pleasers. Even there, however, candidates trying to rally the faithful while also appealing to independents must tread carefully, for the internal schisms in both parties are real and serious.

Democrats, in fact, are gravely split over two separate but overlapping issues: first, the role of teachers’ unions and the extent to which their interests and priorities must continue to be accommodated when forging education policies and practices; and, second, whether it’s right to look primarily to schools and educators to transform America’s education performance or must the country first attend to a host of cradle-to-grave social problems and challenges, many of them beyond the schools’ reach (and thereby, some say, let schools and educators off the hook)?

The GOP, too, faces a pair of big (and also overlapped) splits, both reverberating with past vs. present, of what might be called Reagan-era vs. Bush-era thinking about education priorities. One involves Uncle Sam’s role: forceful driver of reform or an undemanding source of dollars to states, districts and parents to do pretty much what they think best in the K-12 sphere. The other Republican schism is between supporters of school choice as the surest path to better education and advocates of standards, testing and results-based accountability, i.e. between reliance on the marketplace or on government-driven change.

No wonder NCLB is downplayed. To a considerable extent, that monster law and its consequences — embodying, as they do, elements of both sides of all these intra-party rifts — could fairly be termed the cause of the divisions and uncertainties that now rack both parties and that split their strategists and campaign advisors. For vote-seeking candidates in what could turn out to be a close race, maybe the less said directly about NCLB the better. Stick with the crowd pleasers today and save for tomorrow — some tomorrow after November 4 — any clear plans for what to do when statutory reality can no longer be avoided.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is senior fellow at Stanfords Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Chester E. Finn Jr. — Mr. Finn is the president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

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