Doubts grow about Bush education reforms

With the possible exception of tax cuts, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education law may be the most significant reform legislation enacted during the tenure of President George Bush. Although the NCLB initially enjoyed broad bipartisan support, it has faced increasing criticism from conservative critics for its “centralized” approach to regulation.

Bringing successful school reforms from Texas to the national stage was one of Bush’s key pledges during the 2000 presidential campaign. As Texas’s governor, Bush oversaw a system of performance indicators that fiscally rewarded or penalized schools for meeting — or failing to meet — specified targets. The same logic eventually informed the federal No Child Left Behind law, enacted in 2002. However, the expanded federal role in education has increasingly become a political liability for Republican lawmakers among some of their core conservative constituents.

NCLB objectives.

 The NCLB doubled federal education funding to the states, and attached a set of national conditions to the receipt of these appropriations, including:

•Testing all students from grades three to eight in mathematics and reading annually

•Issuing annual compilations of the results of these tests
•Disaggregating annual test results by race, ethnicity, income, disability and language status

•Administering biannually the math and reading sections of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national test designed to measure the reliability of state results against uniform national standards

•Setting out a plan to make “adequate yearly progress” toward eliminating inter-group “achievement gaps” by 2014.

Striking policy departure.

Several features of the NCLB represented a striking departure from previous U.S. education policy:

•Its extension of national standards was a major expansion of the federal government’s role in education (typically the province of the states) — moving significantly beyond such precedents as the 1994 Improving America’s Schools Act in terms of using federal funds to promote improved education. (The 1994 law did contain many aspects of the NCLB’s accountability framework.)

•It made addressing divergent achievement levels across racial, ethnic and income groups an explicit objective of federal government policy.

•By requiring each class to have a “highly qualified teacher” present, the law put the issue of teacher qualification and teacher union power versus parental interests in a national context.

Therefore, the NCLB did not just institutionalize more rigorous accountability standards and mechanisms of implementation. The Act put the issue of national education standards and the persistence of inter-group differences at the forefront of federal policy. It is also data-driven, requiring the compilation of test results on an annual basis for public and congressional scrutiny.

Political rationale.

Politically, NCLB was a significant development of one stream of conservative Republican thought. By combining increased appropriations with sanctions for non-performance, the law was intended as a showcase of how federal funding can be used as an incentive structure to shape outcomes at the state level. Meshing increased education spending (which appealed to liberals) and rigorous standards for achievement (which attracted conservatives) helped generate bipartisan support.

Increasing criticism.

However, the NCLB has attracted three broad strains of criticism since its enactment, and is particularly unpopular in certain conservative circles:

•Bad pedagogical policy? The influential social-conservative author Charles Murray (whose critique of welfare policy played a significant role in federal welfare reform during the administrations of former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill ClintonBill ClintonWhy Trump sitting out the correspondents' dinner is a huuuge mistake Larry Summers: Mnuchin squandering his credibility with Trump tax proposal Patagonia threatens to sue Trump over national monuments order MORE) has recently argued that the concept of standardized or nationalized education policy makes little sense. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, he contended that there is no appropriate national standard that can be drilled into students uniformly across the 50 states and their local education districts.

•Implementation concerns. Although states have a very substantial role in defining how federal standards are devised, critics charge that the national accountability expectations are too demanding for many high “achievement gap schools” (e.g., schools in poor or minority-dominated districts) and thus difficult to implement.

•Constitutional protests. Although the NCLB was the product of a remarkable bipartisan coalition — Bush was backed by liberal Democrats such as Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) — the enlarged federal role in education policy has drawn increasing fire from defenders of federalism and states’ rights. Some conservatives also are worried about the concentration of NCLB implementation responsibilities in the hands of state executive authorities — to the detriment of local education districts.

Enduring political cleavages.

One recent empirical study found several enduring political fissures in response to the law. These divides will influence the NCLB reauthorization debate:

•Regional divisions. There is an unexpected North-South divide that has emerged in response to the law. Southern states, which are traditionally less well-invested in education policy, have had a more positive reaction to the law than Northern states. (For example, Connecticut is suing the federal government over the additional expenditure required to conduct student assessments, and for financial penalties imposed on non-performing schools.) States in the South typically have more room for educational improvement, and get a larger relative financial boost from federal dollars — which improves the quality of education and, in turn, attracts more federal resources.

•Urban-rural divide. Voters in rural districts are positive about NCLB, because they generally witness more funds going to their schools. Yet parents in urban areas, where sanctions have been more common, are increasingly unsettled by the influence of the law. Urban schools find meeting NCLB targets more difficult, because they usually enroll more students who are poor, or speak English as their second language.

•Union politics. Many of the state-level initiatives that predated NCLB, and which received widespread publicity in the 1990s, focused on the failings of teachers and the entrenchment of teachers’ unions as defenders of poor practitioners. NCLB addressed many of these concerns, but continues to attract opposition from many educators, perhaps due to the political legacy of earlier education-reform debates.

•Partisan cleavages. Although NCLB originated as a bipartisan initiative, traditional political divisions have become increasingly apparent as debate over the law intensifies. Democrats are increasingly concerned about the enhanced federal role in school testing and teacher assessment, while Republicans generally favor this approach. However, Republican resistance to providing additional funding — the Democrats’ preferred policy — is hardening.

Outlook for reauthorization.

The NCLB probably will be reauthorized by Congress this year, despite increasing concerns about the law across the ideological spectrum. While few lawmakers back the NCLB wholeheartedly, most favor at least some aspects of the legislation — which should enable it to pass. However, the long-term future of the law is still in doubt, for two reasons:

•Debate has increasingly centered on the fundamental question of whether the federal government can impose a standardized model of educational performance. At present the majority view is affirmative, but opposition is growing among influential conservatives.

•The bipartisan cooperation that produced the law is increasingly at odds with the polarized political environment in Washington.

Oxford Analytica is an international consulting firm providing strategic analysis on world events for business and government leaders. See