Politics & Policy

Finally Taking Yes for an Answer: The Overdue Reform of No Child Left Behind

(Dreamstime)

From the moment of its drafting and passage in 2002, it was easy to see the central flaw in the ambitiously titled No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The act required that increasing percentages of students at every school achieve “adequate yearly progress,” with the stipulation that “failing” schools would face escalating penalties for falling short of this goal. One needn’t have been a social-science wiz to realize the likely outcomes: teaching to the test, watering down the measures of progress, or both.

Probably many in Congress realized the absurdity of NCLB but found themselves prisoners of their own rhetoric. The bipartisan bill was crafted in the wake of 9/11, when there was a premium on lofty ideals and unanimity, and these won out over more sober assessments of the capacities of the federal government. Later legislators would have to square the circle somewhere down the line.

But of course they didn’t. Well-written, incremental legislation has not been a congressional forte over the last decade. NCLB led to increasingly absurd expectations of our school systems, but Congress nevertheless failed to amend the law, and we crossed into a strange Neverland of education policy by waiver. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came to wield outsize influence over education policy: Duncan and company designated specific ways in which states could diverge from NCLB requirements to avoid punitive measures in the law. This was a grotesque and unconstitutional method of making education policy around the country, and it inevitably aggrandized the secretary of education’s role. And this open circumvention of Congress came on top of a handful of other ill-advised directives that used federal power to influence states, districts, and schools from on high.

RELATED: The Rewrite of No Child Left Behind Is a Compromise, But a Principled One

American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess has summarized some of the most egregious aspects of Duncan’s tenure, from his use of post-financial-crisis stimulus dollars to cajole states via Race to the Top, to the misuse of the Office of Civil Rights to meddle in local schools, to the issuing of waivers to push the White House’s preferred policies. Education policy in the Obama years has been marked by the rise of centralized authority at the expense of state and local actors. Partisans of decentralization can be thankful, at least, that Duncan failed in his attempts to establish a massive new federal pre-K initiative and to condition student aid on a government-created college ranking. There is no area of education that Duncan and his department deemed unworthy of federal meddling, all while questioning the motivations of those who disagreed that such authority should be vested in the federal government.

Duncan’s team continued apace, year after year, and a growing bipartisan consensus developed over the years that NCLB was badly broken. In spite of that, and in spite of the fact that reauthorization was due in 2007, Congress repeatedly failed to reform the law.

Yesterday, the 114th Congress distinguished itself from its almost literally do-nothing predecessors by passing a major bipartisan reform of the broken NCLB. This is a big deal — probably the biggest piece of non-fiscal domestic policymaking that Congress has passed since Republicans swept into control of the House in 2010.

#share#The final version of the new law, dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and now headed to the president’s desk, represents a real improvement on its predecessor. Most important, while leaving in place requirements for annual testing, it devolves responsibility to the states for designing interventions for low-performing schools. The days of policy-by-waiver are over, at least for federal education policy, and that is a true sea change. Whatever criticisms one can fairly direct at ESSA — and there are many — we ought not dismiss this core accomplishment as just rearranging deck chairs. As Rick Hess tweeted, “Fed ctrl rarely goes in reverse but it just did.”

NCLB’s structure was not merely a minor annoyance; it had become a powerful symbol of government failure in 21st-century America. It’s a major embarrassment for the previous Congresses, the 112th and 113th, that they could muster no bipartisan majority for the much-needed NCLB overhaul.

RELATED: A New Bipartisan Education Bill Curbs Obama-Era Overreach

Nonetheless, the ESSA has genuine problems that we shouldn’t overlook. While many programs have been consolidated, the overall amount of federal spending on education is set to grow over time; it seems reasonable to worry that federal spending will continue to increase as a proportion of total education spending (with ups and downs), increasing federal power over time as a result. Funding for teacher training remains in the law, even though there is very little evidence that professional-development programs actually produce better teachers. The law also introduces numerous smaller programs, including, most significantly, a preschool program housed in the Department of Health and Human Services. Although the funding starts at a low level by federal standards ($250 million), it is easy to imagine it will expand greatly over time.

The most overlooked but potentially significant part of the new law is the establishment of a direct line of authority between the federal government and local education agencies — bypassing states altogether. This is an important issue well summarized by Andy Smarick here. Not only is this constitutionally dubious, but in practice it further muddies an already confusing morass of education governance. (The Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke has laid out a more comprehensive list of concerns here for those, like us, who are inclined toward significantly reduced federal involvement in education.)

EDITORIAL: A Good Start on Schools

Let us be very clear: We favor a dramatically reduced federal role in education. ESSA does not perfectly reflect that vision. Nor does it come close. But we must evaluate the legislation in terms of costs and benefits; and from the vantage point of those who want to reduce the federal role, the benefits of ESSA seem to outweigh the costs. It may not be a big enough step for some, but it is a start.

Heritage Action and other hard-liners have portrayed the ESSA as a cowardly capitulation to the establishment because of its many defects, and because, says Heritage on its blog, it “falls well short in rolling back federal intervention in education.” In other words, because the final product is a compromise. Half a loaf, they seem to say, is worse than none; compromise today undermines the chances for total victory tomorrow; and immediate tangible benefits from legislative improvements aren’t really that important. As we previously argued at National Review Online, this mindset would guarantee continued policy stagnation and government by executive waiver, a terrible outcome for America’s students.

#related#Mercifully, it appears that the all-or-nothing way of thinking is on the wane in the early days of the Paul Ryan speakership. Only 64 members of the House voted against ESSA, about half of whom are members of the House Freedom Caucus. And just twelve senators voted no. The vast majority, including the great majority of Republicans, decided that half a loaf was much better than none.

That’s entirely appropriate. In time we will surely discover many more flaws in ESSA, but — and this is critical — its passage does not represent the last word in federal education policy. Instead, it rescues education policy from the lawless, waiver-heavy zone in which it had languished for years. It is a major step in the right direction. Sometimes, that has to be enough.

— Justus Myers is a writer in Washington, D.C., and Philip Wallach is a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

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