Education: Even Bipartisan Big Government Fails

Stephanie Wang
Social Policy

Prior to the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, grave educational inequalities existed among students of various racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. Students living in impoverished areas were not subject to comparable educational resources as students living in more affluent areas, hence propagating a systemic inequality in educational access and outcomes. During the 1990s, standards-based education began to emerge as a major educational reform to gauge educational proficiency (Lynch). The unequal educational conditions of students were difficult to ignore in the 1990s where about 75% of school-age students attended public schools. Oftentimes, public schools were riddled with poor conditions, low student achievement, low standardized test scores, and unsafe conditions (“The 1990s Education: Overview”). The areas most affected by poverty were of minority communities, which compelled President Bush to point out the “soft bigotry of low expectations” prevalent in minority communities (Nolen and Duignan). The racial achievement gap is a profound example of educational inequality. Since the 1990s, African American students scored about 0.82 to 1.18 standard deviations below white students on composite standardized test scores. There existed about a 25 point difference in scaled score on the National Educational Longitudinal Survey mathematics achievement test between whites and African Americans, and about a 23 point difference in reading. Hispanic students and white students also exhibit a stark achievement gap in both math and reading (Scott and Engels). These racial discrepancies have structural underpinnings: students of color tend to be concentrated in lower-income schools that receive less educational funds to promote student achievement (Tomaskovic-Devey and Crowley). The socioeconomic disparities in educational proficiency percolate to students’ higher education and job attainment, hence propagating a self-reinforcing cycle that harms marginalized communities (Katz and Rodin). Some also argue that local control failed students with school boards that refused to take action to reform low-performing schools, causing grades to inaccurately reflect students’ true educational proficiency level (Mizell). Hence, the federal government sought to exert more control over the public education system as a result of perceived inequality among local communities.

In 2001, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act into law, a sweeping education reform bill that granted more power to the federal government to regulate student achievement in education. Prior to the passage of this bill, several approaches to education were hotly debated, a main issue being school choice. Proponents of school choice favor allowing parents to choose which school to send their children to by providing vouchers that cover a portion of the cost of charter, private, or parochial education (“The 1990s Education: Overview”). Proponents of school choice argue that if the educational and economic conditions of an area are not conducive to a child’s success, then parents ought to have the right to pursue better educational outlets for their students. School choice tends to be supported by conservatives who favor local control of education. On the other hand, opponents of school choice argue that voucher programs only cover a portion of the tuition, hence only providing adequate opportunities for wealthier families, and that focus should be placed on reforming the public school system (Singer). Opposition to school choice tends to be from liberals. While the NCLB expands school choice, it also takes power away from the local and state level to regulate education as they see fit.

What would become the No Child Left Behind Act was introduced in the House as the first bill of the 107th Congress (United States Congress). The bill, also known as H.R.1, was sponsored by future House Speaker Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) and co-authored by Rep. George Miller (D-CA). Its corresponding bill in the Senate, S.1, was co-authored by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH). With bipartisan support, the bill passed 381 - 41 in the House and 87 - 10 in the Senate. President Bush signed the bill into law on January 8th, 2002 (United States Congress).

Of the important players in the bill’s passage, Rep. John Boehner was perhaps the most influential. After introducing the bill, Boehner garnered 84 co-sponsors for the bill and ushered it through the House Education and the Workforce Committee and the House Judiciary Committee. After garnering broad bipartisan support and passing the House, Boehner worked with the Conference Committee to work out the differences between H.R.1 and S.1. Additionally, Senator Ted Kennedy was perhaps the second most influential actor in the bill’s passage. Senator Kennedy had a passionate focus on education reform and was dedicated to advancing a bill that would improve education standards and opportunities. Although Senator Kennedy was a staunch liberal opposed to President Bush’s ideology, he sought bipartisan efforts to expand the scope of the federal government’s power in regulating education. He was influential in shepherding the bill through the Senate, managing the amendment process, and reconciling differences between the House bill and Senate bill (Samuelsohn and Vinik). Finally, former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings was present during the authoring process of the bill. She provided much of her expertise and guidance serving as education secretary under the Bush administration and previously as the President of the University of North Carolina. Spellings was one of the bill’s principal proponents outside of Congress.

Beyond simply signing the bill, President Bush was influential in pushing the bill through Congress. In 2000, then-candidate Bush campaigned on a powerful message to reform public education. Touting his record of improving educational opportunities and outcomes as the governor of Texas, Bush promised to bring the same record of reforms to the White House on the campaign trail (Rudalevige). He frequently spoke about the poor test scores and lack of teacher accountability, and when he took office, education reform quickly became one of the greatest priorities of the early Bush administration. He met with legislators like Rep. Boehner and Senator Kennedy during the legislation drafting process and was a primary proponent of federalizing many aspects of education policy (Rudalevige). Bush was also involved in negotiating with Democrats on many aspects of the bill, such as the provisions for school choice. Bush’s support was paramount in shepherding the bill through Congress and eventually to his desk.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was a sweeping educational reform that placed new restrictions, accountability standards, and funding opportunities on schools across the nation. The fundamental principle behind the NCLB Act is its proposition that higher standards will lead to better results. One major provision was the requirement that Title I schools must administer a nationwide standardized test to all students annually in order to continue receiving federal funding. Under the law, schools must attempt to reach “proficient” levels in math and reading scores for students by 2014 (Nolen and Duignan). If schools fail to see improvements in test scores, then the federal government can impose a bevy of regulations to help promote student achievement. This could include giving students the option to transfer to a different school, requiring the school to offer free tutoring, replacing staff, introducing new curricula, extending the time students spend in class, or even closing the school in worst case scenarios. Additionally, schools must create standards that demonstrate year-over-year student achievement, such as setting measurable objectives, requiring at least 95% of students to participate in state assessments, and setting a 12-year deadline in achieving a proficient level of education (Linn et al). Furthermore, the NCLB Act strengthened teacher accountability by designating a standard for “highly qualified” teachers. It also required states to provide “highly qualified” teachers to all students, among several other provisions for states to follow. These account for the bulk of the legislation, although some additional minor details are present (United States Congress).

The policy was meant to benefit students and schools who were struggling to meet high educational standards. Much of the provisions focused on uplifting lower-income schools to set higher achievement standards for students, as well as narrowing the racial achievement gap. Considered an unfunded mandate, the NCLB Act primarily accomplished its provisions through regulations imposed on local and state education agencies. However, soon after the bill’s passage, many schools pushed back against the perceived burdensome regulations imposed upon them by the federal government. While the NCLB Act did help improve test scores, especially among minority students, it received substantial criticism due to its one-size-fits-all approach to education reform (U.S. Department of Education).

Despite being passed with overwhelmingly bipartisan support in the 107th Congress, bipartisan criticism soon mounted on the NCLB Act. However, that is not to overshadow the successes that ensued with the passage of the NCLB Act. Perhaps the most impressive outcome of the NCLB Act was the improvement in student proficiency as measured by standardized tests. Data collected by the U.S. Department of Education showed the following: For nine year olds, more progress was made in reading than in the previous 28 years combined. Reading and math scores for nine-year-old Hispanic and African American students reached an all-time high, and the racial achievement gap reached an all-time low. For all student demographics, improvements were made in math and fourth-grade reading, and forty-three states plus D.C. reported steady or higher achievements in fourth and eighth grade math and reading (U.S. Department of Education). These positive reports provided evidence that the high standards principle set forth by the NCLB were successful in improving overall achievement among American students.

Despite these victories in student achievement, the flaws in NCLB soon began to permeate, with the largest flaw being the centralization of the educational system into the hands of the federal government. NCLB very much tackles education with a one-size-fits-all approach, which is not conducive to nuance and the unique needs of local precincts and school districts. Some educators and professionals claim that the standards set forth by NCLB are too unrealistic. Notably, Alabama State Superintendent Joe Morton lamented the 100% proficiency requirement, stating that the law fails to account for local variables and scenarios that may impede schools and states from achieving these goals (Stephens). Additionally, because of the burdensome requirements on achievement imposed on schools, many schools cut or diverted funds from gifted programs or arts and elective programs to focus on improving their test scores. For instance, in Michigan, state funding for gifted and talented programs was cut by 90% after the passage of the NCLB Act (Siemer). During the Obama administration, even Margaret Spellings, the Bush administration Secretary of Education who was a primary proponent of NCLB stated that it was becoming a “toxic brand” that required re-writing to ensure more children could reap the benefits of a high-quality education (Wertheimer).

Another prominent criticism of the NCLB Act that emerged was its excessive focus on using test scores as a metric of student performance. In the case of NCLB, proficiency is measured solely by year-on-year improvements in test scores, which only provided an incentive for schools to “teach to the test” whilst ignoring other equally important aspects of education, such personal development and leadership skills. NCLB also only emphasized proficiency in math and reading, causing many schools to divert their attention away from equally important subjects like history, science, arts, and electives (Klein). The affordability of the high standards sought by NCLB also came under fire, with critics alleging that the federal government did not provide enough funding for schools to achieve these standards. By the 2013-2014 school year deadline, a significant proportion of schools were unable to meet the NCLB achievement targets, compelling the Obama administration to offer several states reprieve (Klein).

By 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was proposed in Congress to replace the NCLB Act. The ESSA significantly reduced the federal government’s role in education by giving states more flexibility in administering standardized tests, establishing teacher accountability standards, intervention measures, and more funding. This devolution of power back to states to regulate educational provisions seemed to address many of the frustrations prevalent in the NCLB Act. The ESSA was passed in both chambers of Congress and signed into law by President Obama on December 10th, 2015 (United States Congress).

Having been enrolled as a student in the American public school system for the past twelve years, I personally believe that the NCLB Act stretched the limits of the education system. This tends to be the issue in federalizing any major policy aspect– it fails to account for localized issues that can be much better addressed state-by-state or county-by-county. Education is a unique aspect of life in that it differs profoundly from student to student. Hence, it is only rational to expect vast differences in educational proficiency district-to-district or state-to-state. However, the NCLB Act set high standards without a reasonable approach to achieve those standards. While the NCLB did set high goals and priorities that proved productive in ensuring student success, its one-size-fits-all approach that lacked regional specialization proved difficult to implement for students, teachers, and states. Many conservatives and liberals agree on the decentralization of education so that students’ needs are addressed by a smaller government with more individualized focus on students, schools, and districts. While a novel cause with good intentions, the ultimate fate of the NCLB Act once again reinforces the ineffectiveness of concentrating power in one centralized government

Stephanie Wang

Stephanie is a 17-year-old from Katy, Texas. She is interested in educational, health, and domestic policy. Beyond her involvement in politics, Stephanie is an avid science enthusiast.