The Republican Party under Ronald Reagan once promised to end the federal government’s grip on local education, with its oppressive mandates that had little constitutional underpinning and a corrupting but addictive drip of funding to hide the pain.
The Republican Party under George W. Bush pumped the federal government’s education muscles full of steroids and twisted our school systems into strangling knots with the inaptly named No Child Left Behind Act. Bush has got his syringe needle out again this year, proposing to throw even more tax money at schools while dictating for the first time what classes high school students must take to receive a diploma. If this trend continues, it won’t be long before local school boards and superintendents exist only to collect property taxes and to fill out the paperwork for a monstrous national system.
But Congress has a chance to stop this travesty, simply by letting No Child Left Behind expire this year.
The promise of No Child Left Behind was that local schools would have to teach every child to read, write, and do math at grade level. States had to adopt standardized tests to gauge each school’s success. Test scores had to be reported not only by each school, but broken down by various races and ethic groups and several other categories. Every group must show progress each year, or the school is declared “failing” and could faces severe penalties.
The law is strict, and it is expensive — a total of $24.4 billion was doled to states and local schools in the most recent federal budget just to deal with No Child Left Behind.
Five years since the law went into effect, we have had little progress to show for all of the time, energy and money invested in this sweeping mandate. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, a measure independent of state standardized tests, indicates slight improvements in lower grade levels but none in the upper grades. In some areas, test scores have actually dropped.
Many states have hidden this problem by designing standardize tests that claim to show widespread success. A University of Berkeley 2005 study of 12 states revealed huge discrepancies between local testing for reading and math and scores on NAEP, which is conducted by the U.S. Education Department.
Arizona’s method of complying with No Child Left Behind is the AIMS test, which has been rewritten several times and its “passing” scores have been lowered. State officials have little choice but to find ways to boost testing results, or they risk a huge number of schools being declared “failing” under No Child Left Behind.
An investigative report by the Associated Press last year found another way states artificially help schools is by excluding millions of student scores (primarily minorities and those with a learning disadvantage) from individual category reporting. Arizona was leaving out tens of thousands of test results from students still learning to speak English for three years, until Education Secretary Margaret Spelling revoked the Bush administration’s informal approval of this arrangement.
One benefit of the recent failure of immigration reform is Bush might not have enough political leverage anymore to pursue additional education mandates. But Democrats who now control Congress have grown too comfortable with the idea of the federal government meddling in education, and they certainly don’t have a problem spending national tax dollars on what should be local and state concerns.
Republicans who remember Reagan’s legacy can unite with critics who realize No Child Left Behind is irreparably flawed, and release our schools by simply blocking any attempt to renew the law.