Education Law Underfunded and Impractical at Best, Dangerous at Worst

Updated October 9, 2007

"Education has got to be the cornerstone of domestic policy," Bush told PBS Frontline during the 2000 campaign. In January 2002 he signed into law the "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) Act, which has as its chief goals (1) to raise student achievement, and (2) to close the gap separating school performance by white, Asian and other middle-class students from that of other minority and poor students. The law mandates testing of students from grades three through eight, and requires steady progress toward state-defined standards of proficiency in reading and math. While many educators agree that the goals are laudable, details of the law and the administration's approach to implementing it have come under harsh criticism. Critics contend:

  • The law is inadequately funded.
  • The law relies excessively on standardized tests, and devalues instruction tailored to students' individual needs.
  • The measurement requirements ensure that a majority of the nation's public schools will be labeled as low-performing.
  • In urban areas the promise of relief from failing schools is meaningless because there is no space in better-performing schools to accommodate additional students.
  • In rural areas training requirements that are impractical for rural school programs will force teachers to resign.

Some have gone so far as to suggest that the law is an assault on the public schools system, intended to promote failure, which can then be used to argue for school vouchers.

No Child Left Behind (If We Have the Money)

Despite the ballyhoo surrounding the passage of the NCLB act, the Bush 2003 education budget called for a $1.3 billion cut in federal aid. Even some assistance programs for low-income students received no increase in funding or had their funding cut. The Bush FY2003 education budget included:

  • Reduced funds for low-income students, meaning 375,000 fewer students would receive funding.
  • Cuts to the Pell grant -- the funding program that helps the neediest students -- to $3900 per year, or $300 below the amount needed to offset the effect of inflation.
  • $201 million less than current funding levels for college work study, supplemental education, and similar programs.
  • A change in the federal student loan program forcing students to pay variable interest rates, adding an estimated $6000 to average student debt.

In May 2002 Congressional Democrats issued a report titled Slamming Shut the Doors to College. The report documents that the slow economic recovery has not caught up with state budgets, and that states are slashing their higher education budgets. As a result, college tuitions are increasing, while financial aid availability is decreasing. At a press conference on May 2, 2002 Sen Jack Reed of Rhode Island assailed the administration's proposed cuts. "The Bush Administration is endangering our future economically and socially by shortchanging education spending," he said.

At the same time, states were voicing caution and skepticism about the value of the NCLB act. Vermont Governor Howard Dean asked the state's school superintendents to consider whether the state should decline $29 million in federal education funding so as to be able to opt out of the NCLB's requirements. The Vermont Board of Education eventually voted to apply for federal funding. In July 2002 Dean announced that the state would apply for the first year of funding, and evaluate costs. "What we’ve decided to do is take the first year’s money and when we decide later on how much it’s going to cost, we can decide whether to take the money for the second year," he said at the time. "We can predict what the impact is going to be, but that’s not the same as experiencing it," state Education Commissioner Ray McNulty said. "It’s only after experiencing the initial impact will we determine the true value of being involved or not being involved."

The omnibus appropriations bill that eventually passed both houses of Congress on February 13, 2003 included a $50 increase in the maximum Pell grant. Critics noted that the small increase came at a time when the program faced a huge funding shortfall because of increased demand. As of this writing, the 2004 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill has been marked up by committees in both the House and the Senate. In the marked up bill, the Pell grant and most student aid receive no funding increases. The work study and supplementary education programs receive a 2 percent increase.

The 2004 budget proposals fund Head Start programs at a level that barely covers inflation, freezes childcare spending, and cuts afterschool programs. Head Start advocates have also decried the proposed transfer of control to the states, which the Coalition for Human Needs says would "eviscerate the federal performance standards that ensure the program’s success." Head Start proponents fear that in the sluggish economic environment governors would be tempted to use Head Start funds for other programs. Sarah Greene, the president of the National Head Start Association, a nonprofit group that promotes Head Start, opposes the administration plans. "We think it would absolutely destroy Head Start," she told the NY Times. Greene's position was echoed by Sen. Edward Kennedy, who said "It makes no sense to start down a totally new path with a program that's been proven effective by three full decades of research. Why would anyone want to turn Head Start into Slow Start or No Start?"

While the 2004 budget does include $1 billion in increases for Title 1 programs, NCLB funding is $6.2 billion below the $18.5 billion authorized by law. (Title 1 programs represent the largest federal funding of public school programs, and are primarily targeted at children who need extra help in reading and math.) Moreover, funding increases are to be paid for by eliminating 45 other education programs, including college financial aid, and school technology centers. The budget also proposes $756 million for a school voucher program -- money that might otherwise have gone to public schools.

At a March hearing before a committee of the Vermont legislature, representatives challenged Michael Sentance, the Northeast representative for the Department of Education, to defend the NCLB law, which demands 100 percent reading proficiency from students within the next decade, but provides a small fraction of the funding necessary to achieve that goal. They railed against the unprecedented federal control granted the federal government over so-called "failing schools," compared to federal funding of only 7 percent of public education costs. With Vermont, like many state governments, already in a financial crisis, legislators were openly resentful of the new underfunded federal mandate. While the law allows for up to $7 billion in federal funding per year, the administration allocated only $1 billion this year. William Reedy, legal counsel for Vermont's education department, cited a passage in the NCLB act that states.

Nothing in this act [requires states] to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this act.

Did this mean, Reedy wanted to know, that if federal funds did not meet states' needs, the states did not have to comply with the law? "The act is paid for, and we are paying what we should be paying for," Sentance responded.

In Danbury, CT the local government had recently eliminated 17 jobs to save money. When the city's superintendent of schools asked for funding for 14 new employees to implement the NCLB act, he was turned down. "It's a great package, but it's useless without money behind it," Danbury's Republican mayor, Mark Boughton told the Associated Press. "In the absence of those dollars, we have to prioritize, and No Child Left Behind is not a high priority when we need to make sure our classrooms have textbooks and teachers."

Struggling with budget deficits of their own, some states, like Hawaii and Utah, have decided to ignore the law and forego federal funding. Others, including New Jersey, North Dakota, Washington and Tennessee, have passed resolutions urging Congress to fully fund federal mandates, including No Child Left Behind. Scott Young, an education policy expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures observed, "It's impossible to put any type of fiscal impact on this. There are too many variables at this point."

How Do I Fail Thee, Let Me Count the Ways

While many educators support the broad goals stated in the NCLB act, many also object to the narrow way that progress is to be measured. The NCLB law requires that a typical school must make a 5 percent gain a year on state test scores to avoid being labeled as "failing." A number of subgroups are defined, as well: poor children, black children, limited English speakers, the handicapped, third graders, black fifth graders. As reported by the Washington Post in January 2003, "Any deviation from steady improvement in any of the subgroups for two consecutive years results in a school being called low-performing."

At the Vermont hearing in March, Senator James Condos, the Democratic chairman of the legislature's joint committee on education noted that Vermont already has one of the most successful testing and assessment programs in the nation -- programs that would be threatened by the underfunded federal mandate. "What the federal government is asking us to do is dump our state educational system," he said. "That's what's gnawing at people."

Condos concerns were echoed by education officials and legislators in other states. "I don't know of any state that isn't facing pretty staggering numbers in terms of schools not meeting" the new law's requirements, Michael E. Ward, superintendent of schools in North Carolina and president of the Council of Chief State School Officers told the Washington Post.

Tom Horne, the Republican state education commissioner of Arizona, and Tom Watkins, the Democratic commissioner of Michigan, told a reporter that they expect 85 percent of their schools to be declared failing. "Arizona will have good schools punished just because they're from poor areas," Horne said, adding that the 100 percent proficiency standard was "Definitely impossible."

Horne observed that a good teacher working with poor children, who made two-years' progress in a single school year could still be judged as failing if they did not meet the proficiency standard. Conversely, a bad teacher at a school in an affluent community whose students are good test takers would be judged a success.

The federal government recently informed the state of Michigan that state tests must be administered in English to all students, even newly arrived immigrants. Commissioner Watkins asked rhetorically if it made sense to conclude that students lacked math proficiency just because they could not read the problems. Michigan was ordered to conduct the tests in English or be penalized $1 million.

Paul Houston of the American Association of School Administrators observed, "What happens is you create a situation where there are so many schools failing that there is no support for them. The administration likes to talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations and how this law fights that. But what about the hard bigotry of high expectations without adequate resources?"

Bill Weinberg, who quit the Kentucky Board of Education in November in protest of the NCLB act told the Washington Post in January, "At best, I think the law is an unwarranted intrusion into state and local control of schools. At worst, it is a cynical attempt by the Bush administration to build in failure and use that as an argument for vouchers.

Some educators question the fundamental assumptions on which the NCLB act is based. Writing in the Februray 2003 issue of the American School Board Journal, UCLA's James Popham goes so far as to label standards-based assessment a "fraud." Popham argues that the term "standards-based" is essentially a rhetorical device, noting "'High standards' is a phrase that by definition alone elicits applause." Yet, says Popham. "Standards-based tests typically don't measure the skills and knowledge they purport to measure. They also don't, as is claimed, help educators do a better instructional job. Standards-based assessment, clearly, is not what it pretends."

The core of the problem, says Popham, is that states have defined, in some cases, hundreds of "standards" of what students should learn in a particular school grade. In principle the standards are supposed to translate into curriculum objectives for teachers, but there are simply too many to be practical. Likewise there are too many standards to be effectively tested. Since test makers cannot test everything, they select a sample of items to test, with the result that some standards are not tested. Moreover, the standards that are tested are typically measured with one or two questions, which is inadequate. Further, test results do not yield information that can usefully guide instruction.

Today's use of standards-based assessment is akin to what might happen at a horse race, such as the Kentucky Derby, if the race's results were only reported as the average finishing time of all the horses that ran the race. That is, the race report would provide no indication of an individual horse's race-finishing time.

Everything You Know Is Wrong

Other educators argue that the NCLB's emphasis on testing and accountability forces teachers to ignore what they know about how students learn, and has led to teacher resignations. Gene Carter of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development notes that "students are unique individuals with differing talents, interests, and needs. A lock-step curriculum that treats all students the same serves none of our students well."

In our efforts to create common standards for all students, we run the risk of stifling student interest and engagement. In the attempt to ensure that all students are mastering these standards, we run the risk of reducing students and the education process itself to test scores. In the process of holding teachers accountable, we are in danger of pushing our most committed and talented educators out of the classroom.

Laurin MacLeish, a Florida kindergarten teacher for 32 years is a case in point. Named Orange County teacher of the year in 1998, MacLeish is resigning in protest over the emphasis on standardized testing. "A single high-stakes test score is now measuring Florida's children, leaving little time to devote to their character or potential or talents or depth of knowledge," she wrote in her goodbye letter to her students and their families. "Kindergarten teachers throughout the state have replaced valued learning centers (home center, art center, blocks, dramatic play) with paper and pencil tasks, dittos, coloring sheets, scripted lessons, workbook pages." According to a recent NY Times article, a newspaper story praising a kindergarten teacher who had eliminated her play centers in favor of reading drills in an effort to improve her school's grade on the state's annual school evaluation was the last straw.

MacLeish acknowledged that her principal, who opposes state testing as much as she does, had insulated his teachers as much as possible. But MacLeish told the Times she had never seen so much state and federal intrusion into the classroom. At one time a fourth grade test was the key state measure of student progress. Later the test was moved to third grade. This year, for the first time, MacLeish was required to spend two days testing her kindergarten pupils. "The wolf is at the door," she said. "I must get out before it gets me." MacLeish will become a resource support teacher, working with students for 90 minutes at a time.

Officials in Montana, Maine, Alaska, and other states with sizeable rural population have complained that the law contains provisions that will force a migration of teachers from rural to urban communities. A recent article in the New York Times chronicled the case of Nicholas Tholt, a 25-year old teacher in Winnett, MT. Tholt earns less than $20,000 per year teaching the entire social studies curriculum to Winnett's 33 high school students. Tholt, who teaches courses in history, civics, geography and government, is certified by the state of Montana, but the NCLB requires him to have a separate college degree in each field he teaches -- something that may not be possible for him and many teachers in similar situations.

"To tell teachers who barely make $20,000 a year that they have to go back to college - frankly it would be easier for them to retire or move to a state where they could just teach one subject," Montana's superintendent of public instruction, Linda McCulloch, Told the Times. "This could just throw our educational system into a mess."

The NCLB act's teacher competency requirements represent the key item of contention with rural states. Nebraska's commissioner of education, Doug Christensen, called the competency provision "horrible." "We have so many schools where one person teaches biology, chemistry, physics and the physical, earth and life sciences," he said. "This law would make them have a major in each subject - and that's just physically impossible." In Montana, the State University offers a degree in "broad field science," which is intended to prepare teachers like Eric Jolma of Winnett to serve as one-person science departments in small towns. Under the new law, Jolma, who has taught the six science courses for nine years, would be required to pass new competency tests in all the subjects, or return to college for additional training. On his $25,967 annual salary, going back to college is not something he could afford.

The Department of Education could permit rural states some flexibility in applying the strict teacher training provisions, but so far indications are that it will not. Many politicians voicing complaints about the negative impact of the NCLB act are Republicans. Montana's Governor Judy Martz told the Times "I can't imagine there's anybody in rural America that doesn't have problems with it." Alaska Senator Ted Stevens has criticized a provision of the law that requires districts to permit students with low test scores to transfer to better schools, at the district's expense. Paige initially insisted that the provision be enforced, but reportedly agreed to relax it for areas of Alaska "too isolated to practically offer school choice."

Susan K. Sclafani, counselor to the secretary of education, made it clear in her Times interview that rural states should not assume that waivers would be granted, however. "It's true that it's more of a challenge to implement No Child Left Behind in rural areas," she said. "We'll take a look at each state's conditions," but added that rural states would be expected to comply with the law, including the requirement that teachers be "highly qualified" in each of their teaching subjects.

School board members in Winnett are confident that their teachers have a good sense of their students' proficiency without resorting to standardized tests. Seventh and eleventh grades this fall will have only four students each. "The people in Washington making these rules have no concept of what rural Montana is like," school board member Jolene Shaw, told the Times. After reading the section of the NCLB act on teacher competency requirements Winnett's superintendent and principal, Clay Dunlap, added "I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I can't tell you what this law means. But what's obvious is that Washington doesn't understand the needs of a remote community like ours.... And that's our concern - this law is one size fits all. Why is Washington telling Montana how to certify teachers?" Rancher and former board member Chris King agreed. "We're not leaving children behind," he said. "So why don't they just let us alone?"

'The Myth of the Texas Miracle'

During the 2000 presidential campaign Bush touted the "miracle in Texas" (supposed improvements in academic proficiency among Texas school students) as evidence that he was a leader who could produce "results." As we've reported previously in The Dubya Report, the validity of claims of academic progress have been seriously questioned by researchers at Boston College and elsewhere. The Texas program has received particular scrutiny because many of its assumptions appear to inform the administration's education policies; Education Department Secretary Rod Paige was previously superintendent of schools in Houston, TX, for example. In his August 2000 report "The Myth of the Texas Miracle in Education" Walt Haney demonstrates that:

  • The Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), a key test of reading and math skills used to determine grade promotion and graduation, discriminates against Black and Hispanic students.
  • School accountability ratings do not include students classified as in "special education" programs. Between 1994 and 1998 the number of students so classified doubled, and there is no reflection of this in the claims of statewide academic progress.
  • Emphasis on TAAS has led to increased enrollments in GED-preparation programs. These students are not counted as drop-outs, even if they subsequently leave the program.
  • Texas SAT scores indicate that academic proficiency of Texas students has not increased since the 1990s compared to SAT-takers nationwide. Math scores have deteriorated during the same period.
  • During the 1990s, only two out of three students in Texas graduated from high school.

As revealed by the Minutes of the Texas State Board of Education in July 1990, as the TAAS program was about to be deployed, the board intended that "the test drives the curriculum" and that "it will require a year or two" to change the curriculum to focus on what the board believed TAAS was testing (problem solving, making inferences, drawing conclusions, etc.). Haney surveyed a number of fellow education researchers whose consensus was that it would take 5 - 10 years (and possibly as long as 20) to "shift the course of large educational enterprises," and that enormous resources would be required. One survey respondent wrote

It's immensely hard to get a critical mass of teachers within a school, let alone a district, to significantly change their practice. I would think getting a majority to exhibit practice that is highly supportive of advanced skill acquisition would be very optimistic, but possibly attainable under optimal circumstances.

I can only imagine having 80-90 percent of teachers place a lot of emphasis on "teaching the more advanced skills" if some pretty sweeping changes occurred. I think it would take at least 20 years for these changes to begin affecting practice on this scale.

Haney notes that the TAAS testing program in Texas, like the testing provisions in the NCLB, originated from a desire to hold schools "accountable" for student learning. He cautions that this is an application of what he terms "outcomes accountability." The number of students graduating high school is an important outcome of a public education program, he suggests, and by this measure TAAS was not effective. Haney argues that the TAAS experience should direct us to the root meaning of accountability, which is an explanation of conduct as well as consequences. Referring to economic theory he notes that many commodities that are often taken for granted, such as air and water, have low exchange value, while commodities with limited utility, such as gold or diamonds, have high exchange value. He invokes the writings of Kenneth Arrow and Vilfredo Pareto in suggesting that it may not be possible to quantitatively measure social welfare.

Like other states, Texas has had to relax its testing standards in order to avoid failing students and subjecting schools to penalties under the NCLB. The Texas charter schools program, which Bush used to present an image of himself as an education innovator, is in a shambles. (Charter schools are independent schools operated at public expense as an alternative to public schools.) According to a June report in the NY Times, the Texas charter school program has become more widely known for "nepotistic staffing, inflated attendance, false academic records, exorbitant salaries and employees with unchecked criminal backgrounds" than for any academic achievements.

Approximately 25 of the 200 Texas charter schools have been closed because of management irregularities and missing funds tallying in the millions. Charter school proponents have responded by calling for a rollback of state financial controls. Ironically, nearly two thirds of the 46 Texas schools rated as low-performing under the NCLB are charter schools -- created with the intent of improving on the public school system. The budget crisis is so bad in Texas that legislators considered cutting the financing of public school textbooks. Yet charter schools continue to divert funds from the public system at a rate of $5,000 per pupil. Meanwhile, the burden of funding public schools is shifting to local governments.

Texas State Representative Garnet Coleman warns that the situation in Texas is not an isolated state problem. "If people see where we are now in this state," he said recently, "they'll begin to understand where the nation is going."


"The Battle Over School Choice" PBS Frontline. 23 May 2000.

Fletcher, Michael A. "States Worry New Law Sets Schools Up to Fail" Washington Post 2 Jan. 2003

Dillon, Sam "New Law May Leave Many Rural Teachers Behind" NY Times. 23 Jun. 2003

Winerip, Michael "The Changes Unwelcome, A Model Teacher Moves On" NY Times 28 May 2003

Winerip, Michael "A Pervasive Dismay On a Bush School Law" NY Times 19 Mar. 2003

"New federal education law strains state coffers" Associated Press. 18 Apr. 2003

Larson, Krista "State will accept federal funding for education" Associated Press. 11 Jul. 2002

"Senate, House Democrats Release Report Detailing Bush Administration Education Budget Cuts, Shrinking Accessibility to College" Press Release. Democratic Staff, House Committee on Education and the Workforce. 2 May 2002.

"Recent News on the Federal Budget" AAUP. 4 Jul. 2003

"Bush Budget Undermines Anti-Poverty Programs" Human Needs Report Coalition on Human Needs. 14 Feb. 2003

Bumiller, Elisabeth "Bush Seeks Big Changes in Head Start, Drawing Criticism From Program's Supporters" NY Times 7 Jul 2003

Carter, Gene R. "Educators Bearing Witness: The Unintended Consequences of Standards and Accountability" ASCD. (undated)

Popham, W. James "Trouble With Testing" American School Board Journal 190.2 (Feb. 2003)

Clines, Francis X. "Re-educating the Voters About Texas' Schools" NY Times 3 Jun. 2003

See also: