Leave This Law Behind

, Kristen Blair, Leave a comment

For loyal supporters of the federal education law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), 2007 has been a lonely year indeed. Public sentiment – as measured through newspaper editorials, blogs, and even television sitcom banter (according to Education Week’s David Hoff) – has unequivocally
hardened against President Bush’s signature education law. Almost two-thirds of American adults now want Congress to modify
or ditch NCLB, according to recent polling by Scripps Howard News Service.

This was not always the case. Initially viewed by many as a promising way to close entrenched achievement gaps, NCLB enjoyed widespread public support and bipartisan backing. But political alliances have since begun to erode. This fall, congressional negotiations failed to produce reauthorization; prospects for renewal in 2008 are increasingly dim, given intense union opposition and a looming presidential election.

Cautious legislators must also reconcile myriad criticisms of the law. Some opponents object to NCLB’s exclusive attention on reading and math, saying this leaves other valuable subjects out in the cold. An article in Monday’s Washington Post chronicles the dearth of music classes since NCLB’s passage. A 2007 study (.pdf) by the Center on Education
reveals a shift in curriculum allocations: 44 percent of districts nationwide have cut back on science, social studies, music, and art to make more time for
reading and math.

Still others suggest the law’s perverse incentives have opened the floodgates for states to “game” the system with low standards. There is good evidence that this has happened. Eugene Hickok, a former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education writes that “researchers have already noted a pattern whereby states lower passing thresholds…to achieve increased ‘proficiency’ and avoid federal sanctions.”

Finally, numerous parents (including me) object to a testing culture – due in part to federal mandate – that is turning schools into high-pressure education boiler rooms. All too often, test preparation co-opts the school day, trumping real learning. Rigorous assessments are worthwhile and necessary, but they’re not intended to replace a balanced liberal arts education.

What’s the solution? That clearly depends on whom you ask: “fixes” to NCLB run the gamut. Discussion drafts have included merit pay proposals for teachers; some policymakers expect the performance of school principals will be the next follow-on to earlier teacher quality provisions. Others want NCLB revamped to incorporate graduation rates, science tests, even physical education. Finally, some policymakers are calling for uniform standards.

But these measures won’t address the core problem of NCLB – its high-stakes federal intrusion. Sagacious legislators voiced this concern early on but were unheeded. Fortunately, greater state flexibility may be in the offing: last spring, U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra introduced legislation (Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success Act, A PLUS) to permit states to opt out of NCLB while retaining eligibility for federal funds. A PLUS has 64 cosponsors in the U.S. House, including North Carolina’s Reps. Patrick McHenry, Walter B. Jones, and Virginia Foxx. These congressional lawmakers (along with Rep. Sue Myrick) are also among 35 cosponsors of a
similar opt-out bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett. Both bills are in committee.

Such legislation represents a promising step toward decentralizing public education. But the first and best way to localize education is to put some measure of control directly in the hands of consumers. School choice – giving parents the freedom to select the school best suited to their child’s needs – does just that.

Currently, North Carolina has a relatively restricted menu of choice options, but momentum for change is growing. Yesterday, the state’s Blue Ribbon Charter School Commission finalized its recommendations to the State Board of Education, advocating raising the cap on charter schools. The General Assembly still needs to concur; nevertheless, this is a welcome sign. Are other parent-empowering school choice options on the way? Given the considerable limitations of top-down federal education reform, let’s hope so.

Kristin Blair works with the North Carolina Education Alliance.