The numerous problems with the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) have sparked criticism from both liberal and conservative policymakers. The National Education Association (NEA) has pushed for higher teacher salaries, smaller classrooms, and ‘indicative’ longitudinal testing. In contrast, the libertarian CATO Institute education policy analyst, Neal McCluskey, argues for the end of federal and state government intervention in education.
Although increased funding has not translated into educational gains, special interest groups continue to push for increased expenditures. According to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) 2006 Education Report Card, between 1983 and 2005 “per pupil expenditures have increased by 77.4 percent (after adjusting for inflation), student performance has improved only slightly—71 percent of American eighth graders are still performing below proficiency in Math” on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests. At a recent CATO book forum, Vice President for National Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation Mike Petrilli likened Congressional education policy to an earmark factory, characterizing Congress as obsessed with producing legislative pork. “But it’s worse than that,” he argues; “It’s not just wasteful. . .It also pulls schools in all kinds of directions that’s not good for kids.”
The 2001 NCLB legislation creates a tension between federal and state governments, simultaneously requiring universal proficiency by 2014 while leaving the proficiency standards to the discretion of state officials. According to McCluskey, this legislative sleight of hand has rendered state level proficiency standards virtually meaningless, initiating a nationwide “race to the bottom, where the standards are at these rock-bottom levels and we’re calling proficiency something” which the NAEP would label “basic or below basic knowledge.”
Disgruntled with the apparent lack of educational progress under the public education system, McCluskey concludes in his new book, Feds in the Classroom, that Americans “must reject federal control [of education], return the nation to a decentralized, consumer-driven system of education like that of the early republic…” In other words, education policy should be devolved to the local level, with increased parental discretion over curriculum and widespread school choice.
In contrast, Petrilli argues that federal control is vital to the success of minority students, because America’s “key education problems, at the end of the day, are political. They’re political in that at the local level…some things that are good for poor and minority kids are politically infeasible.” The persistent prejudice of local districts against poor and minority students, he argues, necessitated federal intervention through NCLB as a means to reduce these educational disparities. McCluskey’s push to eliminate federal and state control, as described in his book, “is a little too simple,” argues Petrilli, claiming “we need to argue against simple solutions.” He asserts that a national education standard would plug the uneasy accountability gap created by NCLB. These national testing standards must be delinked from federal funds in order to decrease the self-interest involved in their creation.
However, establishing an unbiased national education commission to set reasonable standards remains an elusive goal, if not impossible. “…There is absolutely no reason to believe that the federal government is somehow inoculated against politics,” argues McCluskey. He asserts that “the government is working first and foremost for those who govern— politicians, education officials, public school employees— and that means getting as much money as possible, success not withstanding.”
Bethany Stotts is a staff writer for Accuracy in Academia.