"I'm here to congratulate this school and hold it up for the nation to see what is possible when you raise the bar, when you're not afraid to hold people to account, and when you empower teachers and principals."
Those were President Bush's words last week as he toured the Laclede Elementary School in St. Louis, a largely African-American institution where students have raised their grade-level reading rates from 7 percent in 1999 to 80 percent today.
The President had good reason to be proud -- but also good reason to worry. Two years after his No Child Left Behind educational reform bill passed 98-1 in the Senate, the consensus on educational reform is beginning to unravel. And it isn't just Democratic presidential candidates who are complaining.
In November the Reading, Pennsylvania school board sued the state and federal governments, arguing that NCLB has created an unfair financial burden. The district is caught between a soaring immigrant population (11 percent Spanish-speaking) and a crumbling industrial base, which has reduced property tax revenues from $34 million to $22 million in the last eight years. When the state flunked 13 of the district's 19 schools and ordered it to begin private tutoring programs under NCLB, the district filed suit. "This is not an Ozzie and Harriet world," said the lawyer representing the district, Richard Guida. "We can't just waive a magic wand and make our problems go away."
Reading isn't the only district objecting. Cheshire, Connecticut, recently turned down $80,000 in federal school funding tied to NCLB, arguing that the bureaucracy and paperwork involved in dividing students into racial and ethnic groupings and testing their abilities weren't worth it. In Utah, Republican legislator Kory Hodaway has introduced a bill that would prevent the state from accepting $100 million in funding tied to NCLB. "This law amounts to an unfunded mandate," said Rep. Hodaway -- using the dread term reminiscent of Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America." Everywhere, school districts are complaining that NCLB is just another layer of top-down reform requiring teachers to abandon their regular curriculum and "teach to the test."
There is more than a little irony in this. Ten years ago, in making the classic case for school vouchers and educational choice, John Chubb and Terry Moe argued that such reform efforts were what was wrong with the public schools. "The typical pattern is for dissident groups to seize control of the administrative apparatus through elections or reform campaigns," wrote Chubb and Moe in Politics, Markets, and America's Schools. "Then they impose change from the top down." The result, the authors said, was layer upon archaeological layer of educational mandates, under which all teacher independence and initiative were soon buried. "The teachers respond by turning to their unions to resist all change," said Chubb and Moe. The resulting stalemate between school administrations and teacher unions was the norm of public education.
Has No Child Left Behind become just another set of top-down mandates, this time imposed by the federal government?
"That's a good point," says Moe, who holds fellowships at both the Hoover and Brookings Institutions. "It's true there's a top-down aspect, with people at the top trying to control what people at the bottom are doing. But there's also a bottom-up element that allows parents and children to seek alternatives outside the system."
Under NCLB, states must test their schools for performance, making all sorts of differentiations between different racial and ethnic groups - a thicket that Republicans may eventually regret. "The purpose is so that you aren't just measuring student background," says Moe. "The tests are looking for improvement -- or lack of it."
If schools score egregiously low or fail to show improvement, they must be designated at "failing." This allows parents and children to opt out -- or to demand special tutoring programs. Although Congress appropriated $5 billion for these programs, much of the burden will still fall upon the local school districts.
"What gives this law its historic dimension is the accountability," says John Chubb, Moe's co-author, now chief education officer at Edison Schools. "This is the first time in the nation's history that the federal government has stepped up and said, 'We expect something of our schools.'"
The trick will be to demand accountability without having this all degenerate into just another pretext for the liberals' favorite solution -- throwing more money at existing schools. The ACLU already has a long-standing class action against the Compton Unified School District in Los Angeles for failure to provide its pupils with a safe and adequate education. In New York liberal reform groups are now using the state constitution to jack up school funding -- already among the highest in the country.
Meanwhile, Democrats have quickly abandoned their support for No Child Left Behind. Every Democratic presidential candidate is calling for more funding and front-runner Howard Dean has rejected it altogether. Senator Edward Kennedy, who led Democratic supporters in the Senate, is now asking for additional billions.
And so it may be time for Republicans to return to the other element of the school reform -- vouchers, charter schools, and school choice. Republicans gave up these options in 2001 in an effort to win Democratic support in Congress. As a result, even children in "failing" schools have no option except to transfer to another school in the same district. Catholic schools, private schools, and home schooling - all of which are showing notable success -- are not among the options.
"No Child Left Behind has at least increased our understanding of where we stand," says Christopher Smith, executive director of the Internet Educational Exchange (iEdx), an Arizona-based reform group. "The testing has served as a thermometer to tell us which patients have a fever. But the options for a cure are still very limited."
The Exchange supports home schooling, public and private school vouchers, on-line education, and a wide variety of options as alternatives for failing public schools. "Education is very complex," says Smith, who served as policy director and chief of staff in the Arizona State Senate before founding iEdx in 2003. "There is no one solution for everybody. Our idea is to introduce as much variety and competition into the system as possible."
Not a bad strategy. The first congressional session after a Bush landslide victory in 2004 might be a good time to start.