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No Child Left Behind Turns 12 Today. Now What?

By Alyson Klein — January 08, 2014 3 min read
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Flashback, twelve years ago: President George W. Bush travels all the way to Hamilton, Ohio to put his signature on a law that was supposed to forever change the nation’s schools by giving the federal government far more say over accountability, particularly for poor and minority children. In exchange, schools were supposed to get vastly more federal resources.

“Our schools will have higher expectations,” Bush said at the time. “We believe every child can learn. Our schools will have greater resources to help meet those goals. Parents will have more information about the schools, and more say in how their children are educated. From this day forward, all students will have a better chance to learn, to excel, and to live out their dreams.”

Of course, even at the bill signing, some folks at the school privately expressed doubts about the law’s vision. Today, if you threw a rally to keep NCLB the way it is, no one would show up, as Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo, likes to say.

Why Hamilton High? It was in the district of Rep. John A. Boehner, then the chairman of the House education committee, and a major author of the NCLB law. Today, of course, Boehner is speaker of the House. He recently helped shepherd a bill that largely undid the federal accountablity system at the center of the NCLB law through the GOP-controlled chamber.

NCLB is undergoing another milestone on its 12th birthday. The law hits its dozen-year mark during the school year in which it specifies that, technically, all children are supposed to be proficient in reading and math. And a child who entered the first grade—and just beginning to learn to read—when NCLB passed is now a senior in high school, taking the SAT and sending off college applications.

Of course, the deadline comes with a big asterisk, as the law has some built-in breathing room so that not every kid actually has to score proficient, as long as the major at-risk populations continue to make gains.

And it’s really (mostly) academic at this point. Nearly every state has a waiver from the NCLB law, and as part of that process the Education Department allowed states to set “ambitious but achieveable” achievement targets. States can choose, for instance, to cut the achievement gap between subgroup students (such as racial minorities) and other students in half in six years. What’s more, bills under consider in Congress to reauthorize the law would amount to a significant watering down of its key provisions, putting states largely in the driver’s seat.

Congress hasn’t officially reauthorized the law (and may not do so anytime soon), so it’s likely waivers will remain the law of the land until the end of the Obama administration. After that ... who knows?

Plus, there are eight states that don’t have waivers yet—which means that they are still subject to the law as it used to be. It’s an open question how strictly the department will enforce the law on those states, which are supposed to intervene in all schools that miss their achievement targets. (Waiver states are told to focus greater attention on a smaller number of schools. So far they are having mixed success.)

In the middle of all of this, other than the first few years of implementation, Congress didn’t come anywhere close to providing the promised boosts to the major fomula programs in NCLB.

Bottom line: Nearly everyone agrees the law is due for a makeover, and seeing this highly publicized deadline come and go with little fanfare just seems to make that case stronger. But there is little agreement in Congress on what structure the new law should have, and there’s almost no chance for new resources (the usual sweetener for reauthorization), so it’s difficult to see a road forward.

So what’s your take on the NCLB law on its birthday? Comments section is open.

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