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The GOP’s Plan to Take Education Policy Back to the Early 1990s

Everybody hates the No Child Left Behind Act. In the last few weeks, both conservative Republicans and President Obama have announced plans to overhaul George W. Bush’s signature education law by sending power over K-12 schooling back to the states. On the surface, this might seem like a rare moment of bipartisan consensus. Don’t believe it. The two plans actually represent radically different views of the federal government’s responsibility for helping children learn. 

To see why, it helps to understand some common misconceptions about NCLB. The law requires schools to administer annual reading and math tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and it holds schools accountable for the percentage of students who pass the tests. That target percentage increases steadily over time, to 100 percent in 2014. Since universal proficiency is obviously impossible, the law has been cast as a malevolent force designed to tar public schools with “failing” labels as a prelude to corporate takeover and/or conversion to the free-market voucher nirvana of Milton Friedman’s dreams.

There are, however, three aspects of NCLB that render this scenario very unlikely. First, states were given total discretion to set their own academic standards, pick their own tests, and decide what scores on the tests count as passing. Last year, for example, Alabama reported that 87 percent of its fourth graders had passed the state’s reading test. Yet Alabama is, by all available measures, one of the most academically low-performing states in the nation. According to the federal National Assessment of Education Progress, only 34 percent of Alabama fourth graders are proficient in reading. The lesson: Give state education officials the ability to decide how their performance will be judged, and they’ll respond in predictable fashion.

Second, NCLB decreed that schools where test scores fall short for six consecutive years should be overhauled by a variety of possible methods, including state takeover and conversion to a charter school. But lawmakers left a trap door in the law: The worst schools could also implement “any other” restructuring of the school. What “other” means was left up to the states. In 2008—six years after NCLB’s provisions had gone into effect—over three-fourths of failing schools had chosen “other,” which often means something like “hire a consultant.” Hardly any were converted to charter schools, and the small number that were taken over by the state were disproportionately located in Hawaii, which makes it seem like America’s island paradise is full of unusually tough-minded school reformers, until you remember that, unique among the 50 states, there are no school districts in Hawaii. The failing schools “taken over” by the state were already run by the state in the first place.

Third, NCLB did very little to improve the quality of the teachers in America’s classrooms, and researchers agree that teacher quality is the most important within-school factor affecting student learning. Union contracts often prevent school districts from using student test scores and expert observations to evaluate teachers, or to deny them tenure if their performance falls short. Hiring, firing, and salary decisions are made by seniority, not quality. Without the ability to know which teachers are best, pay them more, and put them in classrooms with children who need the most help, schools are hamstrung in their ability to meet performance standards.

So NCLB has ended up in the worst of all possible worlds—it has the reputation of being a punitive, anti-teacher law without any of the benefits of being so. The danger is not that NCLB will destroy public education if left unchecked until 2014. The danger is that it will be rendered absurd. A law that slaps the same “failing” label on all or most schools will simply be ignored, undermining the rule of law and the federal government’s ability to effectively improve education.

President Obama’s plan, announced last week, would allow states to apply for waivers from the 2014 deadline. In exchange, states would have to adopt policies that the administration has already been advancing via its “Race to the Top” competition for federal stimulus funds. And not coincidentally, the policies are designed to fix the three major NCLB flaws. States will get relief if they adopt real academic standards that prepare students for college and/or careers. Most will do this by signing on to the Common Core Standards, a state-led initiative to establish new, legitimate benchmarks and tests in reading and math. Once states like Alabama convert to the Common Core, the days of pretending that nearly all students are passing will be over.

States will also have to pick from a menu of options to turn around their lowest-performing schools—without an “other” trapdoor. And they will need to start evaluating their teachers in earnest, using multiple measures of performance, including classroom observations and growth in student test scores. So while the Obama blueprint for education is in some ways more limited than the grand visions of 100 percent proficiency embodied in NCLB, it is also more likely to actually work, ensuring legitimate high standards for all children for the first time and making a concerted effort to fix the worst schools in America. 

Republicans, by contrast, are proposing to abandon the whole idea of federal education policy. Like the administration, they cast their proposal as a way to fix NCLB and give more discretion to the states. But under the plan announced in mid-September by Senator Lamar Alexander, states would simply be required to have some standards and administer some tests, the nature of which would be entirely up to them. They would have to identify the bottom five percent of schools and pick among various options for fixing them, including “other.” Teachers would simply have to be certified by their state, which is redundant, since “state-certified” doesn’t mean anything other than “legally allowed to teach in this state.” And that’s about it.

The bill, to be sure, includes pages of hand-waving at ideas like standards and accountability, but ultimately eliminates any federal authority to make those ideas real. For example, the Alexander plan requires states to provide the U.S. Secretary of Education with an “assurance” that “the State has adopted college and career ready academic standards.” Then, it says that “A State shall not be required to submit any standards developed under this subsection for academic content of student academic achievement to the Secretary for review or approval.” Apparently, the Republican approach to education policy is “Trust, but don’t verify.”

We know what the Lamar Alexander vision of public education looks like. It’s called “the early 1990s,” before the 1994 passage of a previous version of NCLB that required states to start developing real standards and accountability systems. Back then, states could do as they pleased, and as a result, only 14 percent of fourth graders were proficient in math. After two decades of sustained focus on basic subjects in elementary school, that percentage has more than tripled, to 45 percent. Presumably, Alexander hasn’t forgotten those bad old days—he was Secretary of Education at the time. It’s a shame that his nostalgia for the failure over which he presided has resulted in legislation to roll back twenty years of imperfect but significant progress in education policy.

Indeed, the Republican proposal looks in many ways like a caricature of old-school liberalism—billions of dollars distributed via formula to local school districts based on poverty rates, with no accountability for spending the money well. Representative John Kline, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, complained that by establishing criteria for receiving waivers, Arne Duncan would be picking “winners and losers.” So Republicans are against competition and winning now. Who knew?

In truth, the Republican plan to repeal NCLB and replace it with nothing is best understood as part of their long-term project to limit claims on the federal treasury. Taxpayers like to spend money on public education. In the long run, expanding federal oversight over K-12 schools will increase the ability of K-12 schools to demand federal resources in exchange. Public education is a gargantuan enterprise, costing over $600 billion per year. The distribution of those funds is deeply inequitable, with children in poor districts and states receiving far less money than their more fortunate peers. Only the federal government can level the financial playing field, and that would cost a lot of money.

The prospect is terrifying to anyone whose primary concern is lowering taxes on rich people and corporations—that is, every Republican of consequence in Washington, DC these days. So, step one is to clear away the education policy. To get a flavor of step two, note that tucked away in the Alexander plan is a provision to reduce the maximum amount of money Congress is authorized to spend on the Title I program for poor children by over $10.5 billion each year.

Beneath the similar-sounding NCLB criticisms from folks across the ideological spectrum, in other words, are diametrically opposed visions of federal education policy. One is trying to make the federal government a more effective partner in helping disadvantaged students meet high standards of achievement. The other is trying to abdicate that responsibility at all costs.

Kevin Carey is the policy director of Education Sector, a think tank in Washington, D.C.