Leaving ‘No Child’ Far Behind

In the decade since the parties put politics aside to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, education policy has gone from pragmatic consensus to ideological division.
October 2013

Nothing charts the shifts in the nation’s politics better than a look back at President George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address. In it, he acknowledged “my friend, Ted Kennedy,” who had worked with the White House to pass the president’s signature No Child Left Behind Act. Bush joked that the folks at the coffee shop back in Crawford, Texas, “couldn’t believe I’d say such a thing, but our work on this bill shows what is possible if we set aside posturing and focus on results.”

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Fast-forward to this summer, when there was no bipartisan backslapping, no joking and no coalition to renew No Child. The program was left behind by the partisan rancor that has overtaken Washington, and the battle marks just how far the center of the two parties has slid in the years since Bush’s speech.

In July, House Republicans pushed through a party-line vote that gutted most of what Bush held dear. Gone were the tough accountability provisions, the mandate that states avoid replacing federal funds for their own and the requirement to evaluate teachers. The House also cut funding, allowed the states flexibility in spending the remaining funds and prohibited the U.S. Department of Education from pressuring states to adopt Common Core standards, a state-based effort to develop national academic criteria.

Republican Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, who championed the bill, said that “states and school districts have been clamoring, clamoring for less federal mandates.” Alabama Rep. Martha Roby added, “Let’s get Washington out of the way to ensure a brighter future for our children.” Democratic Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado countered that “Kline’s bill is a major retreat on accountability. States would no longer have to have systems that measure student growth,” he said. “It’s a major step backward.”

In a little over a decade, education policy had gone from pragmatic consensus to ideological division. The Republicans have shifted from the party of national accountability through federal grants to a party promoting unfettered local choice with less federal money. The Democrats, meanwhile, have limped along, neither willing to fully embrace the Bush legacy nor empowered to do much on their own.

As the reauthorization debate bounces between the ideological poles, the Obama administration has been granting states waivers from some of the act’s toughest provisions in exchange for embracing elements of its own agenda. But that process, involving more than half the states, worries some Democrats, who believe that the waiver process is arbitrary and without a central idea.

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What the administration has been promoting is an aggressive effort to advance Common Core. Rather than asking each state to develop its own exams and standards, the administration has been encouraging states to instead rely on testing experts to create them. Educators argue that Common Core exams provide some of the most sophisticated testing systems available, make it possible to gauge just how much students are learning, reduce gaming in the testing process and allow teachers to gauge their students’ results against a national scale.

But Republicans argue that Common Core is an excessive federal intrusion into local schools and parental decisions. Some states, including Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma and North Dakota, have opted out of the Common Core consortium completely. In Utah, the debate became fiercely partisan. One parent charged members of the local school board with “falling hook, line and sinker to sell our children’s souls” and said she wanted to protect her children from the state Board of Education’s “tyrannical jurisdiction. If you insist on collecting my student’s data,” she said, “you had better come with a warrant.”

The battle taps into the strong libertarian philosophy that’s been bubbling up from the political right in the years since Bush’s No Child victory. Meanwhile, centrist Democrats find themselves fighting to hold the position that Bush staked out a decade before. This reversal of roles shows just how far the political spectrum has shifted in the last decade.

It also exposes an even bigger battle that’s brewing over broader questions of federal-state relations, especially on Medicaid: What should the federal government pay for? Can and should states opt out of the national policy, even if it hits them in the wallet? In the absence of compromise, to what degree can a step-by-step, state-by-state process of administrative waivers keep the system from flying apart? And can the president—Republican or Democrat—use the waiver process to sidestep congressional battles, even if it infuriates ideologues all the more?

Fashionistas in the 1980s could never believe that people just a decade before wore polyester leisure suits to dance disco. It’s even harder to believe now that the party that championed No Child is seeking to gut it, that the party that reluctantly joined to pass it would fight to save some of its shreds or, for that matter, that compromise between a Bush and a Kennedy was once possible.

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