Taming the Beast

It's not just a question of full funding; NCLB is a set-up

By Stan Karp

Illustrator: Stuart Goldenberg

illustration: Stuart Goldenberg

What’s the right funding level for a bad law? Almost from the day Congress passed the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB), there have been contentious debates about its funding levels. But while these debates have raised significant issues about what constitutes “full funding” for NCLB, they have generally avoided the fact that without drastic changes in its “test and punish” approach to school improvement and its promotion of privatization and market reform in education, full funding for NCLB might actually make things worse.

Democrats who voted for NCLB have argued it was one of the only ways they could get a Republican administration to increase federal education spending. But they soon began complaining that President Bush was retreating from his promises and underfunding his own education plan. As the impact of NCLB’s mandated tests, punitive sanctions, and long lists of “failing schools” produced outcries across the country, the pro-NCLB coalition began to fragment, and Democrats turned up the volume of their complaints over funding. They pointed to a $14 billion gap between the levels originally “authorized” for NCLB and Bush’s budget requests. (In the bizarre world of Congressional budgeting, “authorization” levels are ceiling figures that authorize spending up to certain levels for a particular piece of legislation. “Appropriations” are what Congress actually makes available in approved budgets.)

“The President’s promise to provide the resources needed by our public schools is just a façade,” said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the bill’s main Democratic architect in the House. Budget-strapped state legislators denounced NCLB as an “unfunded mandate,” and at least four states voted not to allow state funds to be used for NCLB implementation.

Republicans responded, with a mixture of evasion and accuracy, that Congressional authorization levels were often much higher than what appropriations delivered, and that federal education spending under Bush was higher than ever. In a January 4, 2003, radio address, the President said that his budget provided “more than enough money” to meet the law’s goals. Education Secretary Rod Paige added, “Everything that NCLB requires is paid for with record taxpayer investments,” according to Education Week .

So, who’s telling the truth? Given the usual level of political debate in the United States, it’s not surprising that the truth lies not in the mushy middle, but somewhere beyond the narrow posturing which ignores, on both sides, the fundamental flaws of NCLB.

It’s true that Congressional Democrats have consistently supported higher federal spending on education than the administration and its supporters (although even the latest Democratic spending proposals do not reach the “authorization” targets they’ve been rhetorically invoking as “promises”). For its part, the Bush Administration has raised federal education spending by several billion dollars, mostly for Title I programs, though that growth slowed sharply after the first year of NCLB. It has not increased the federal share of school spending, which remains at about seven percent, leaving the cost of meeting the new federal mandates mainly to states and local districts.

But both Democratic and Republican proposals are light years away from what it would take to realize NCLB’s grand promises. NCLB mandates that all students, including special education students and English language learners, reach 100 percent passing rates on state tests by 2014. Some see this as a noble commitment to wiping out achievement gaps. Others see it as a political setup to label public schools as failures and pave the way for privatization and vouchers. But however one sees the mandate, there’s no escaping the fact that NCLB does not provide the federal funding needed to reach it.

Yawning Gulf

William Mathis, a superintendent of schools in Brandon, Vt., and a professor of education finance at the University of Vermont, has tracked the various claims about NCLB funding (see Education Week , April 21). He examined estimates in 20 states that used a wide variety of methods to calculate the school services, remedial programs, and other expenditures needed to approach universal passing rates on state tests. These studies indicate that it would take about a 30 percent annual increase in current school spending for states to come close to meeting NCLB’s goals-even on its own narrow test-score terms. That’s about $130 billion a year, or almost 10 times what current funding is for Title I programs. To date, the much-touted increase in federal spending accompanying NCLB represents about a one percent increase in total U.S. school spending.

This yawning gulf between current levels of NCLB funding and what it might actually cost in test-driven educational programs and services to close the test-score gap has left NCLB supporters with a credibility gap of their own. Lately, some NCLB defenders have taken to filling it with the argument that NCLB is, in fact, not underfunded at all, but is fully funded in the only area that really matters-developing and imposing the mandated “accountability” system of tests and standards.

In the March 17 issue of Education Week, two prominent Harvard academics, Paul E. Peterson and Martin R. West, argue that “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.” They argue that the heart of NCLB and the true measure of federal responsibility is the “accountability” system that holds schools responsible for meeting the new mandates-not the actual education programs and services required to reach them. Since developing standards and tests is relatively cheap compared to real educational programs or real school improvement efforts, West and Peterson assert that there is more than enough money for schools to do as NCLB commands. Citing studies that put the median cost of testing at about $15 per student, they conclude “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!”

Scant Evidence

According to this line of reasoning, as long as the federal government funds the development and imposition of the tests, NCLB is fully funded-even “overfunded” in many respects. Beyond that, it’s up to the states and local districts to redirect existing educational spending and programs to meet NCLB’s standards and test-driven targets. As for the need for more funds? “If money could solve the educational problem, it would by now be behind us,” the Harvard scholars write. “Unfortunately, there is scant evidence that, in the absence of market competition, more money makes for better schools. . . . 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.”

On one level, this argument is absurd. No state has ever reached “the proficiency levels that the No Child Left Behind law insists upon” and mandating it won’t make it so. To expect schools to wipe out long-standing academic achievement gaps while denying them substantial new resources and leaving many of the social factors that contribute to this inequality in place is not an “accountability” system. It’s a politically designed setup.

On another level, however, West and Peterson are perfectly right that the core of NCLB is a system of federally mandated “accountability” that attempts to drive education policy at the federal, state, and local levels down a one-way street paved with standardized tests. The goal is to codify a rigid system of test-driven “accountability” that sets up public schools for failure, justifies steps toward privatization and vouchers, and uses standards and tests to push other, more democratic approaches to school improvement to the sidelines.

For these purposes, the federal price tag for NCLB can be tied mainly to the costs of developing the “accountability system” needed to push states and school districts in the desired directions, not to the monumental costs of actually meeting the mandates.

There is no question that a real commitment to “leaving no child behind” would require huge increases in federal education spending. Think tens of billions of dollars over many years-the kind of federal funding the military gets. Yet this year’s entire federal education budget for K-12 programs is about $36 billion, less than half of what Congress approved in supplemental funding alone for the war in Iraq. But while such massive investments are necessary to provide an adequate education for all children, money alone can’t fix NCLB. Pouring money into NCLB as it is currently constructed means funneling much of it to testing companies, “supplemental tutorial providers,” for-profit education companies, and voucher-inspired “choice” plans. NCLB needs to be transformed from a test, punish, and privatize law into a real school improvement law. The obsessive reliance on standardized testing (including the ridiculous “adequate yearly progress” system), the punitive sanctions, the chaotic transfer plans, and the educational malpractice that the law imposes on special-education and bilingual students all need major revision. Only if and when that happens can “full funding for NCLB” become a legitimate rallying cry for schools and their advocates. NCLB is one beast that needs to be tamed before it should be fed.

Stan Karp (stankarp@aol.com) is a high school teacher in Paterson, N.J., and an editor of Rethinking Schools.