NCLB renewal faces long odds

Fred Thompson made a shrewd move recently by calling for reforms to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program. Too many other Republicans — running for president and serving in Congress — seem unable to grasp the fact that this key Bush administration initiative is no longer viable, not politically, not constitutionally, not academically. If he pushes this message hard, Thompson stands to reap a huge harvest of votes for his stance because the country is turning against NCLB, and that includes lots of better-educated Republican parents who will vote in next year’s primaries.

Unfortunately, too many Republicans have become wrong-headed about NCLB solely because it’s a Bush program or because teachers’ unions oppose it. They seem to overlook the obvious faults of the plan from a Republican perspective. Most notably, the plan undermines the federal system and local control of schools.

Thompson explains NCLB’s faults well: “We’ve been spending increasing amounts of federal money for decades, with increasing rules, increasing mandates, increasing regulations. It’s not working.” Polls confirm Thompson’s sense that our schools aren’t getting better under NCLB. In 2001, when NCLB was adopted, Gallup polls found that 48 percent of K-12 students’ parents were very or somewhat satisfied with the quality of education kids received in America. By last August, satisfaction had slipped to 46 percent.

The Tennessee Republican doesn’t want to abandon NCLB’s testing and accountability altogether. Instead, he would propose block grants that mandate objective tests chosen locally. Thompson’s directive to the states: “We expect you to get objective testing done and publicize those tests for the local parents and for the local citizens and suffer the political ramifications locally if things don’t work out right.” What a refreshing, limited-government perspective on education. Perhaps the federal system will once again become a laboratory of democracy, like it once was, showing us what works and what doesn’t.

Getting an objective picture of public opinion on these issues is difficult. The public doesn’t know much specifically about NCLB, or even generally about its specific provisions, so it’s a challenge for pollsters to ask directly about program approval. NCLB has to be described or explained before posing a question. These explanations, often biased and prejudiced, skew the polls. This has been most notable in polling sponsored by teachers’ unions and testing organizations, both of which have vested interests in the matter.

So in searching for the most objective national polls on the topic, I have focused on an April poll conducted by the Pew Research Center and various Gallup Polls to provide an objective perspective on NCLB.

Gallup reports in its current analysis, “More than half of Americans are unfamiliar with NCLB” and “those who are familiar are just as likely to believe that the program has hurt public schools as believe that it has helped.” That’s hardly a rousing endorsement for renewal of the measure.

More precisely, Pew says that among those who have heard about NCLB, barely one-third (34 percent) say the law has made schools better. Even more telling is that even fewer parents, just 30 percent, say the law has made their own child’s school better.

In particular, pluralities of the general public and parents feel there is too much testing, a central part of NCLB’s accountability measures. While the public and parents, like Thompson, don’t want to abandon testing and accountability, the problems associated with merely “teaching to the test,” test fraud and flawed tests have undermined the current system so much that reforms are necessary.

Clever campaign sloganeering like “no child left behind” and “the soft bigotry of low expectations” got this policy enacted six years ago. But now that the measure is up for renewal, the backers of NCLB will need more substance than slogans.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.