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‘No Child Left Behind’: the not-so-hidden agenda

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Backers of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), passed by Congress in 2001 with the active support of the Bush administration, say the law will improve public schools through increased accountability and school choice.

But in the minds of many public school advocates, the real intent of this law is to grease the skids for privatization of schools serving under-resourced communities – a replay of what has happened in Philadelphia during the last two years, only on a national scale.

NCLB creates a whole series of hurdles that public schools must meet:

  • A greatly expanded testing program will measure student achievement, with the goal being 100 percent of students meeting the standard of proficiency within 12 years.
  • Schools must meet the goal of "a highly qualified teacher in every classroom" by 2005.
  • School systems must provide opportunities for students in failing schools to transfer to a better performing school in the same district.

Dollars don’t match expectations

While few would argue with these goals, many are skeptical that they can be met without significant school spending increases. While NCLB increases federal funding by 18 percent, an additional $3.5 billion, many doubt that this is enough to pay for the mandates now imposed on the public schools.

Stan Karp of the Rethinking Schools editorial board pointed out that "the extra dollars…are already threatened by the administration’s ‘war budget’, which calls for eliminating 26 of the federal programs just reauthorized" in the current federal education budget.

The gap between expectations and resources led National Education Association President Reg Weaver to characterize NCLB as "the granddaddy of all underfunded federal mandates."

These federal mandates are also coming at a time when local and state governments are reeling from both cuts in federal spending and economic recession. The unwillingness of the Republican-dominated Pennsylvania legislature to fund Governor Rendell’s education budget is a case in point.

The prospects for meeting the lofty teacher quality goals for NCLB are bleak. According to Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, "17 percent of all secondary students and 26 percent of low-income secondary students are taught by teachers who are not certified in the subject they teach."

In cities like Philadelphia, the number of uncertified teachers continues to grow. How this is going to change almost overnight without improving salaries and working conditions in urban school systems is murky at best.

The Bush administration has frozen spending for the teacher quality improvement programs created in NCLB, which would help improve teacher instruction. Hastily imposed new requirements for teachers to gain or maintain certification could result in pushing current teachers out of the classroom, aggravating rather than fixing the teacher quality problem.

The choice provisions of the NCLB also pose difficulties for cash-strapped districts like Philadelphia.

With the exception of magnet or special admission schools, there are few schools where students are achieving at high levels. If large numbers of parents exercised their option to transfer their children to better schools, it is still unclear how the system would accommodate them.

District CEO Paul Vallas admitted this when asked about his plans to expand choice.

"We don’t have a lot of choices available. We’re going to have to create more," he said.

Small carrots, big sticks

School districts that fail to meet the ambitious goals of NCLB will face sanctions. Annual targets will be set for all schools and those that fail to meet them will be subject to corrective measures.

States must submit accountability plans that outline how state department of education officials will enforce the federal guidelines in their districts. These guidelines mirror the kind of measures that many states already have in place which allow for state takeovers, reconstituting or privatizing schools, and contracting management to private firms – all policies we have seen in Philadelphia.

The official overseeing the development of these state plans is none other than Tom Ridge’s one-time education czar, Eugene Hickok, now President Bush’s U.S. Department of Education undersecretary.

There seems little doubt that many, even most, public schools will fail to meet the annual progress benchmarks in NCLB. The Pennsylvania Department of Education announced in August that half of the state’s schools did not meet "adequate yearly progress," with 196 of Philadelphia’s 264 schools on the list.

Setting up the public schools for failure

It is these unrealistic expectations matched with harsh sanctions which lead some to believe public schools are being set up to fail.

When asked if NCLB is part of a larger conspiracy to dismantle public education, Sandra Feldman said: "I don’t buy the conspiracy theory, but I do believe that people in high places who are hostile to public education and want vouchers see this complex law as an opportunity."

The opportunity is clear enough.

The choice provisions of the law are bound to boost charter school enrollment and have the potential to generate more support for vouchers.

Sanctions will encourage a wide range of privatization initiatives – from vouchers for tutoring to turning district-run schools into charters or turning them over to private management.

If schools fail on a large scale, political pressure for "radical" reform (vouchers and universal privatization of public schools) will be generated, as many conservative education activists and think tanks would like to happen.

But this outcome is not inevitable.

If public school advocates use the data on failing schools to press for full and equitable funding along with empowering parents and teachers as partners in school reform, a different outcome is possible.

Short of these kinds of reforms, children will continue to be left behind in staggering numbers, and no amount of rhetoric will make it any different.

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