Special Report

The Return of No Child Left Behind

Bush education reforms will live to see a new day -- despite the Republican field's silence on school reform.

By 8.16.11

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School reform was one of the few prominent successes of former President George W. Bush -- and one that has actually been embraced by his successor, Barack Obama. But you wouldn’t know it from last week's GOP presidential debate.

Certainly there was plenty of drama -- including the sparring match between Rep. Michele Bachmann and now-former candidate Tim Pawlenty, and the cheers from attendees after Ron Paul declared that he would pull troops out of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. The debate and the straw poll that followed two days later have reshaped the race for the Republican nomination. But, interestingly, none of the candidates had anything to say about the steps they would take to follow up on Bush's efforts to address America's woeful public schools. Those schools are spurring a crisis of dropouts who will burden the nation's economy -- and weigh on the federal budget as welfare recipients -- for decades to come.

Save for Herman Cain, who passingly noted that "we need vouchers," none of the candidates offered any sort of coherent views on education policy. As for No Child Left Behind? They didn't even bother. Huntsman made it clear that he did not favor the law, while Mitt Romney -- the most prominent supporter of the law during his tenure as governor of Massachusetts -- couldn't even offer a thought on the Obama administration's announcement last week that it was essentially gutting No Child. The Administration is bypassing Congress and offering waivers to states that allow them to avoid scrutiny under No Child’s school accountability rules. And none of the GOP candidates said a word about it.

In fact, almost none of the candidates have taken strong positions on efforts to expand school choice or even how to overhaul the federal government's $100 billion a year in public-school allotments. The candidates who have some experience in this arena -- like Jon Huntsman -- are running away from their political records. As Utah governor, Huntsman vetoed one school voucher proposal and allegedly watered down another. This is why Huntsman's most prominent former backer, Overstock.com founder Patrick Byrne (one of the nation's best-known supporters of school choice), proclaimed last week in Politico that he would never support Huntsman for a presidential bid.

Newly announced candidate Rick Perry is the one most likely to be vocal on education. He already won over RedState's Erick Erickson for mouthing off against federal education policy and sparring with the Obama administration over its Race to the Top initiative. He also opposed efforts by Administration-aligned conservative school reformers to coax states into enacting new reading and math curricula standards. From where Perry sits, "Texas is on the right path toward improved education" and doesn't need Washington butting in on its work.

If only.

Perry unfortunately takes federal school dollars where he sees fit (belying his conservative credentials) and most of the Lone Star State's gains in student progress occurred under predecessor Bush (who modeled No Child on his work as governor). During Perry's tenure, Texas has fallen behind more aggressive reform-minded states such as Florida in improving student progress, further undermining Perry's credibility on education.

But the silence on school reform among GOP candidates -- and their retreat from No Child itself -- is deafening. Even before Bush teamed up with Ted Kennedy and John Boehner in 2001 to pass No Child -- and despite pretensions that education should be a state and local responsibility -- Republicans (and conservatives) have been as aggressive as Democrats in expanding the federal role.

In 1958, President Dwight David Eisenhower successfully pushed for the passage of the first major expansion of federal education policy, the Cold War-prompted National Defense Education Act of 1958, which led to the first major wave of standardized testing. During the 1970s, Richard Nixon fought for further expansion, including the creation of what is now the Institute of Education Sciences, which administers NAEP, the federal test of student progress. And it was Ronald Reagan who ushered in the modern school reform movement in 1983 with the publication of A Nation at Risk.  Besides spurring the creation of some 250 state and local panels focused on improving teaching and expanding school choice, it would also begin a series of federal efforts that would culminate in school reform moves by George W. Bush's father and Bill Clinton, including efforts to get states to embrace an early form of national curriculum standards.

Even now, there are plenty of Republicans, including Sandy Kress (who wrote No Child) and former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who still support an expanded federal role in education. Congressional Republicans have also made sure to play their part in continuing a strong federal role, most recently in successfully reviving the D.C. Opportunity voucher program, which was launched a decade ago by another generation of congressional Republicans.

There are also suburban Republicans such as House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, who try to appeal to movement conservatives with talk of reducing the federal role even as they push for higher levels of spending. Even as Kline has pushed to gut No Child's accountability rules (while complaining about the Obama administration's effort to do the very same thing), he has enthusiastically backed increasing the $11 billion the federal government ladles out to special education programs. The fact that special ed has helped fuel the nation's education crisis by labeling illiterate but otherwise capable young men as "learning disabled" has never factored into Kline's thinking.

Meanwhile, Republicans -- especially movement conservatives -- are vocally rejecting anything that seems to increase the federal role in education. Remember the race for the Democratic nomination in 2004? Progressive activists, frustrated that Bill Clinton turned out to be the Republicans' favorite Democrat, rebelled against any candidate who dared embrace Clinton's legacy. The current GOP campaign is shaped by that same kind of rebellion, this time against the excesses of Dubya's presidency (and his legacy, on education, as the Democrats' favorite Republican). Movement conservatives may be generally supportive of expanding vouchers and charter schools, two of the most-prominent elements of Bush's education policy. But the very concept of No Child itself -- especially its accountability provisions -- has always been viewed as federal overreach. Add the very presence of the U.S. Department of Education (whose abolishment has long been sought by conservative reformers), and the Obama administration's effort to require states to adapt Common Core reading and math standards in exchange for federal funding, and No Child becomes a dirty word.

In reality, No Child did little to expand the federal role, or even increase Washington's nine percent contribution to the $591 billion spent annually on schools. If anything, No Child actually signaled the reality that states, not school districts, control the direction of education. Given that school districts, as local governments, are merely tools of state control, this has always been implied. But since the 1960s, successful efforts by teachers' unions to pass state laws forcing districts to bargain with them, along with school funding lawsuits and property tax reforms such as California's Proposition 13, have led to states taking a more prominent role in all aspects of education -- including picking up 48 cents of every dollar spent on schools.

No Child gives a lot of leeway to states when it comes to interpreting how to meet certain requirements, like the one assuring that all teachers be "highly qualified" for instruction. States may be required to improve graduation rates and test scores -- including the aspirational goal that all students are proficient in reading, math and science by 2014 -- but the federal government allows them to develop their own solutions in order to achieve them. The approach hasn't exactly worked out as Bush wanted, as states have figured out how to game the law's flexibility. But the law has shined a much-needed light on the abysmal quality of education throughout the country.

For reform-minded governors on both sides of the political aisle, No Child has proven to be the tool they need to beat back opposition from suburban districts and affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which have long dominated education at the state level. No Child, along with Race to the Top, is the leading reason why 13 states this year expanded school choice, either in allowing for the expansion of charter schools and starting various forms of school voucher plans. This fact (along with the preoccupation with addressing the debt ceiling and healthcare reform) is why congressional Republicans haven't moved forward on revamping No Child.

Certainly for current political considerations, Romney, Huntsman and the rest of the field would be better off saying nothing about education. But sooner or later, each of them will have to take a stand -- and quite likely, one that won't be all that pleasing to conservatives who have no direct interest in education.

Education has been, until recently, one of the few areas in which Obama has had success and enjoyed bipartisan support (even if the means have not exactly been pleasing). While last week's move to gut No Child has been panned even by those who benefit from the effort, other aspects of Obama's education policy agenda -- including expanding charter schools -- remain popular, especially among centrists in both parties. Whoever wins the GOP nomination will have to offer a slightly different vision that still accomplishes the very same goals of improving the quality of schools. The fact that Obama's push for national standards is rather unpopular also gives any Republican nominee an opening to appeal to voters generally skeptical of what can be called the next step in crafting a national curriculum.

The reality that the high levels of high school dropouts -- some 1.2 million a year – will contribute to more Americans on the dole (and make the nation less competitive in the global economy) figures into the equation. And there is the uncomfortable fact that the feds are not going to significantly scale back education spending (especially since school bureaucracies in GOP districts are just as dependent on federal dollars as those in Democrat ones).

So the eventual GOP nominee will actually embrace the very school reform formula -- including holding states accountable for student progress, expanding school choice, and subjecting teachers to private sector-style performance management and compensation -- that was a hallmark of Bush's education policy a decade ago.

In short, No Child Left Behind will see the light of a new day.

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About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.