Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Fixing No Child Left Behind

The following piece appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

Fixing No Child Left Behind
WSJ Editorial: March 6, 2007; Page A18

The No Child Left Behind education law is up for renewal this year, and an independent commission recently released some recommendations for improvement. Not to be outdone, the White House has also put out its own "blueprint" for strengthening the law. The legislation could use a serious reworking, but any fixes won't go far enough unless they do more to expand public and private school choice.

NCLB's political bargain was that, in return for a big increase in federal education spending, the government would hold schools more accountable for results in the classroom. Six years later, taxpayers have done their part. Since 2001 overall NCLB funding has risen by 34%, and federal spending on Title I schools serving low-income students has gone up 45%.

NCLB and the Bush Administration also deserve some credit for shifting the terms of the education debate. The law has focused attention on learning gaps between students of different races and economic backgrounds that persist even at some of the nation's best public schools. The law's requirement that schools test annually in grades 3-8, and report both averages and the results of racial and economic subgroups, has made it much more difficult for administrators to hide the fact that all students aren't learning.

NCLB has been much less successful in bringing pressure to bear on states and school districts that fail to implement the law. That's especially true of the school choice provisions, which are the best way to get the attention of the education bureaucracy. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration abandoned its voucher proposal very early in the 2001 negotiations. What passed was a watered-down version of public school choice, which in theory allows a child in a failing school to transfer to a better public school or get free after-school tutoring from private providers.

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In practice, however, the Education Department has too often allowed school districts to skirt even these limited choice provisions, either by granting exemptions or looking the other way. It took a formal complaint from the Alliance for School Choice before Secretary Margaret Spellings did anything about Los Angeles failing to notify parents of their transfer rights as required under the law. So far she's sent the district a sternly worded letter.

And the Chicago public school system, which has been repeatedly labeled "in need of improvement" and thus should be banned under NCLB from offering its own after-school tutoring, has been given a waiver to do exactly that. So while it would be nice if the Bush Administration enforced its own law, the larger lesson is that school choice "lite" turns out to be no substitute for the real thing.

To be fair, some of these problems are structural. Even if more school districts were implementing NCLB's transfer provisions, there often isn't enough room in decent schools to handle all the children who qualify for a transfer. And many of the private after-school tutoring services allowed under the law are simply employing the same teachers from the local public school system who are failing the kids during regular school hours.

There's also the problem of allowing each state to develop its own standards and tests to determine proficiency in reading and math. The Administration was deferring to federalist principles on an issue that's traditionally been handled at the state and local level. But the reality has been a "race to the bottom," with some states constructing easy tests to avoid federal penalties.

"If you're in Oklahoma right now, you're told that 95% or 96% of your schools are doing fine," says Frederick Hess, who follows education at the American Enterprise Institute. "And if you're in Massachusetts, you're told that 40% to 45% of your schools are doing fine. But if you look at the actual achievement data, it suggests that kids in Massachusetts are doing far better than kids in Oklahoma."

Some education reformers are now calling for "national standards" to address this problem. But we tried national history standards in the 1990s, and the politicized results weren't pretty -- unless, of course, you favor a history curriculum that downgrades the Founding Fathers while playing up the working experiences of midwives in 19th-century Nebraska.

Rather than force a national test on states, the best compromise here may be to require them to benchmark their own assessments against the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), a federal standardized test that already exists and that most educators agree is fairly rigorous. "So people at least have a common metric by which to judge the rigor of the state assessment," says Mr. Hess.

It's worth considering, and we wish we could say the same about the Commission on No Child Left Behind, which was funded by private foundations and co-chaired by former Governors Tommy Thompson and Roy Barnes. But the panel's report is more interested in tinkering than fundamental change, and its 75 recommendations don't include the one that would make the biggest difference: school vouchers.

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The Administration's proposed fixes are bolder and potentially more consequential. President Bush's 2008 budget sets aside $250 million for "promise scholarships" for low-income students in schools that have consistently underperformed for five years. The scholarships would average about $4,000 and "the money would follow the child to the public, charter or private school of his or her choice."

Them's fightin' words for the Democrats who now control Congress. But Mr. Bush has the bully pulpit, as well as the moral authority from five years of evidence on failing schools. We hope his Administration uses them to explain why real school choice is essential to any reform in K-12 education.

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