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Federal Opinion

The Contentious ‘No Child’ Law II: Money Has Not Been Left Behind

By Paul E. Peterson & Martin R. West — March 17, 2004 4 min read
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The No Child Left Behind law is, intrinsically, an inexpensive school reform, a plan to get more bang from existing bucks.

“An unfunded mandate,” cry the critics of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. In the words of Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee: “By neglecting his promise to provide the funding necessary to help each student to reach high standards, George W. Bush has made a mockery of the phrase ‘leave no child behind.’” Virginia’s Republican-dominated legislature recently struck a similar chord, passing (on a vote of 98-1) a resolution complaining that the law will cost “literally millions of dollars that Virginia does not have.”

A damning critique, if true. But consider the following:

The No Child Left Behind law is, intrinsically, an inexpensive school reform, a plan to get more bang from existing bucks, not a high-priced mandate. The costs of setting standards, testing students, and releasing results to the general public are trivial, compared to the cost of public schooling more generally.

Two Massachusetts officials, James Peyser and Robert Costrell, report in the current issue of our publication, Education Next, that accountability costs in their state run about $20 per student tested. Looking at 25 states, the Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby found that the costs of accountability systems in place in the 2000-01 school year ranged from less than $2 per public school student in South Carolina to $34 per student in Delaware. Costs in the median state were just $15 per public school student. Meanwhile, average per-pupil costs in U.S. public schools now run approximately $10,000 a year.

In short, the true costs of the No Child Left Behind Act are no more than 0.2 percent of the total cost of public schooling. Would that all unfunded mandates were so cheap.

But if the mandate is cheap, the new federal bucks are plentiful. Historically, education has been a matter to be funded by state and local governments. But the federal role has been increasing rapidly under the Bush administration. Between 2000 and 2003, the U.S. Department of Education upped its contribution to elementary and secondary education by approximately $300 per pupil, from $23 billion to $36 billion dollars—15 times the cost of accountability.

Out of this banner increase, $384 million was set aside in fiscal year 2003 specifically to pay for the additional costs of accountability—enough to pay in full for the math and reading tests required by No Child Left Behind, starting in 2005-06, say Messrs. Peyser and Costrell, if not all the anticipated costs of additional tests required later. To remedy that shortfall, the president’s 2005 budget proposal calls for still further funding increases, bringing the designated amount to $410 million.

But for the president’s critics, this is not enough. In their view, the president promised still more when he signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law. For example, the law authorizes expenditures on Title I of up to $13.5 billion for fiscal year 2002, but only $10.4 billion was ultimately appropriated. For the president to renege on his promised support, say the critics, reveals a scandalous disregard for American schoolchildren.

This disingenuous argument ignores the fact that virtually every federal bill authorizes more money than is appropriated under the legislation. Authorizing legislation sets ceilings, not floors, as every member of Congress knows perfectly well. Appropriations cannot exceed the authorizing limit, and they routinely fail to come anywhere near the authorizing level.

For instance, the federal education law prior to No Child Left Behind, passed in 1994 by a Democratic Congress and White House, authorized spending of up to $7.4 billion on Title I, but appropriated just $6.7 billion. Yet nary a soul accused President Clinton of failing to provide adequate funding for education.

There is scant evidence that, in the absence of market competition, more money makes for better schools.

But whatever the Beltway politics, won’t it take more money to make sure no child is left behind? The law requires that all children reach a certain level of proficiency within 12 years of its passage. Won’t that take big bucks?

If money could solve the educational problem, it would by now be behind us. Since 1980, school expenditures—in inflation-adjusted dollars—have risen by no less than 67 percent, far outpacing the growth in the economy as a whole. Unfortunately, there is scant evidence that, in the absence of market competition, more money makes for better schools. Over the past quarter of a century, student performance has hardly budged, and the black-white test-score gap remains as large as ever. High school graduation rates are actually declining. Clearly, money is not the missing ingredient that has kept students from reaching the proficiency levels that the No Child Left Behind law insists upon.

But will the law change this dismal picture? Though it’s too soon to tell, early returns are favorable. Two recent studies, conducted independently by researchers at the Hoover Institution and at Stanford University’s school of education, find noticeable gains in those states that moved first to put accountability systems into place.

Far from being an unfunded mandate, the No Child Left Behind Act may be providing designer clothes at a bargain- basement price.

Paul E. Peterson and Martin R. West, both of Harvard University, are the editors of the journal Education Next, and of the book No Child Left Behind? The Politics and Practice of School Accountability (Brookings Institution Press). Mr. Peterson is a member of the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education.

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