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No Child Left Behind: The Dangers of Centralized Education Policy, Cato Policy Analysis No. 544

No Child Left Behind: The Dangers of Centralized Education Policy, Cato Policy Analysis No. 544

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Published by Cato Institute
Executive Summary

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which
the Bush administration claims as its proudest
achievement in domestic policy, directly contradicts
the principles of an "ownership society,"
which the administration is promoting in areas
such as Social Security reform. The administration
recognizes that the educational policies of
the last four decades, a period of almost uninterrupted
centralization, have failed, but its remedy
is yet more centralization.

The NCLB statute is a reform strategy at war
with itself. It virtually guarantees massive evasion
of its own intent, ordering state education agencies
to do things that they mostly don
Executive Summary

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which
the Bush administration claims as its proudest
achievement in domestic policy, directly contradicts
the principles of an "ownership society,"
which the administration is promoting in areas
such as Social Security reform. The administration
recognizes that the educational policies of
the last four decades, a period of almost uninterrupted
centralization, have failed, but its remedy
is yet more centralization.

The NCLB statute is a reform strategy at war
with itself. It virtually guarantees massive evasion
of its own intent, ordering state education agencies
to do things that they mostly don

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Published by: Cato Institute on Mar 26, 2009
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The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), whichthe Bush administration claims as its proudestachievement in domestic policy, directly contra-dicts the principles of an “ownership society,”which the administration is promoting in areassuch as Social Security reform. The administra-tion recognizes that the educational policies of the last four decades, a period of almost uninter-rupted centralization, have failed, but its remedy is yet more centralization.The NCLB statute is a reform strategy at warwith itself. It virtually guarantees massive evasionof its own intent, ordering state education agen-cies to do things that they mostly don’t want todo. Washington will be forced either to allow thestates great leeway in how they implement NCLBor to make NCLB more detailed, prescriptive, andtop-heavy. If Washington chooses the former, thestatute might as well not exist; if the latter, federalpolicymakers will increasingly resemble Sovietcentral planners trying to improve economic per-formance by micromanaging decisions fromMoscow. NCLB may end up giving us the worstpossible scenario: unconstitutional consolidationof power in Washington over the schools, withthat power being used to promote mediocrity rather than excellence.It is too early to know for certain which sce-nario will prevail, but it is already clear that stateand local education officials are skillfully protect-ing their interests in ways that undermine theintent of NCLB. Especially telling has been theirwidespread dishonest reporting in at least fourareas: graduation rates, school violence, qualifiedteachers, and proficiency tests. As it becomesincreasingly clear that the states can satisfy therequirements of NCLB by lowering their stan-dards, there will likely be a “race to the bottom.”Instead of using centralized decrees to turnmediocre institutions into excellent ones, as they have been trying but failing to do for the last sev-eral decades, the state and federal governmentsshould be empowering individual families to“vote with their feet” by transferring to theschools of their own choice.The key locus for such revolutionary reforms isthe states. The best contribution the national gov-ernment can make to educational improvement isto avoid educational policymaking and allow states to experiment with school choice programs.
 No Child Left Behind 
The Dangers of Centralized Education Policy
by Lawrence A. Uzzell
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________
 Lawrence A. Uzzell is an independent researcher and former staff member of the U.S. Department of Educationand the U.S. House and Senate committees on education.
Executive Summary 
No. 544May 31, 2005
 
Introduction
In domestic policy, the No Child LeftBehind (NCLB) education act is the Bushadministration’s top claim to visionary leader-ship. The president and his aides have com-pared NCLB to landmark programs such as theSocial Security Act or the Homestead Act. In hisacceptance speech at the 2004 Republican con- vention, President Bush stated that NCLB is“the most important federal education reformin history.”
1
Both during and since the 2004election campaign, President Bush’s speecheshave depicted the 2002 act as an unqualifiedsuccess; even before his second inauguration,the president proposed to extend its provisionsfrom elementary schools to high schools.Especially striking is the boast that Bushhas increased federal spending on educationfaster than any president since Lyndon Johnson.
2
That is a reversal as profound as theClinton administration’s embrace of sweepingwelfare reform in 1996; in both cases the party in power accepted ideas long associated withits opponents. The Republican reversal is themore stunning of the two because most mem-bers of the president’s party on Capitol Hillchanged course with him. During the Repub-lican Party’s rise to majority status from the1960s to the 1990s, by contrast, it usually opposed centralized federal programs in edu-cation as in other areas of governance. Asrecently as 1996, the party’s platform pledgedto abolish the U.S. Department of Education.
3
What ultimately matters is NCLB’s successnot as a one-shot campaign tactic but as a long-term strategy for bringing genuine reform tothe country’s dysfunctional public schools.With party loyalty keeping most congressionalRepublicans from criticizing the statute, itsskeptics currently find themselves marginal-ized in Washington. But in the long run NCLBshould and will be judged by its actual results.
Dangers of Centralization
No Child Left Behind was enacted in theform of a reauthorization of the 1965 Elemen-tary and Secondary Education Act, one of thecenterpieces of President Lyndon Johnson’sGreat Society. Once it takes full effect, thestatute will require states that receive ESEA sub-sidies annually to test third to eighth grade stu-dents in reading and mathematics. By 2014 thestates must bring all of their students up to the“proficient” level on those tests. In the mean-time the states must demonstrate “adequateyearly progress” (AYP) toward the goal of 100percent proficiency—including progress towardeliminating achievement disparities betweenethnic subgroups. Schools that receive subsi-dies under the ESEA Title I program for disad- vantaged children and that repeatedly fall shortof their AYP targets are subject to an escalatingseries of corrective measures: allowing their stu-dents to transfer to other public schools aftertwo years,
4
providing supplementary servicessuch as private tutoring after three years, andpossibly becoming subject to mandatory restructuring thereafter.NCLB’s success will depend on whether itis possible to produce excellent educationalperformance through centralization. Itsadvocates are in a self-contradictory position.They recognize that the educational policiesof the last four decades, a period of almostuninterrupted centralization, have failed, buttheir remedy for that failure is yet more cen-tralization. While invoking the principles of an “ownership society” on issues such asSocial Security reform, they are pursuingalmost the exact opposite model in schools.In a period of growing social mobility andindividual autonomy, they are promoting a top-down, Great Society model of reform—transferring power from individual parents,teachers, and principals to distant bureaucra-cies such as state education agencies.Ironically, the Bush administration hasmade a key exception to its “ownership soci-ety” precisely in the area of social policy thatby its very nature is
least 
susceptible to cen-tralization. Education is inherently personaland inherently value laden. The key relation-ships in schools are those between individualteachers and individual students: If theteachers are not committed and highly moti-
2
Ironically,the Bushadministrationhas made a key exception to its“ownershipsociety” precisely in the area of social policy thatby its very natureis
least 
susceptibleto centralization.
 
 vated, no centralized rule books or formulasare going to inspire peak performance fromtheir students. To use social science jargon,schools are “loosely coupled systems”; there-fore, decrees from centralized administratorshave little power to boost school perfor-mance but enormous power to impedeprogress. Indeed, before the mid–20th centu-ry such administrators were either nonexis-tent or mostly irrelevant; key decisions weremade at the level of the individual school by principals and teachers.
5
Moreover, schooling inescapably involves judgments about truth and virtue, about whatkind of person a youngster should aspire to be.In an increasingly pluralistic society, Americansare inevitably going to disagree with each otherabout those judgments. Which historical fig-ures should children be encouraged to revere asheroes? What should they be taught aboutancient belief systems such as Christianity andIslam—and about modern ideologies such asfeminism and environmentalism? Should “tra-ditional values” such as piety, chastity, andasceticism be celebrated, ridiculed, or simply ignored? Americans in the 21st century have nomore chance of reaching consensus on thosequestions than of agreeing on what church (if any) we should all attend. That is why we keepthe state out of controlling churches, just as wekeep it out of other value-forming institutionssuch as publishing and journalism. The morewe entrust such decisions to centralized stateagencies, the more conflicts we foment—con-flicts that in a truly free society would be unnec-essary. As legal scholar Stephen Arons observedin 1997: “One civic group after anotherattempts to impose its vision of good educa-tion, and all join in a struggle over the one truemorality to be adopted by the public schools.The outcomes of the conflicts over curriculum,texts, tests, and teachers seem less and less likeconstructive compromises that knit communi-ties together; more and more they resembleblood feuds, ideological wars, episodes of self-ishness wrapped in the rhetoric of rectitude.”
6
Zero-sum “culture wars” for control of coercive state monopolies thus make ene-mies of people who could otherwise befriends. Perhaps in some bygone era eachlocal public school reflected a local consen-sus. But in today’s ultra-mobile society, inwhich communities are less and less definedby geography, the only way to keep the cul-ture wars from engulfing the schools is a comprehensive strategy of parental choice.The key to rescuing our children from thebureaucratized government schools is radicaldecentralization: tuition tax credits, taxdeductions, and vouchers. Unfortunately,NCLB is taking us in precisely the oppositedirection.Granted, NCLB does not explicitly call fornational curricula. The statute mandatesstandards for testing, not for curricula, and itleaves the specific content and design of thetests up to the states. But in the long run thetests will, at least to some degree, drive thecurricula, and that will loom even larger if NCLB is extended to high school programsas well as to elementary-level reading andmath. The statute is already promoting cen-tralization within each state, to the detrimentof pluralism and local control. It couldbecome a force for national centralization aswell if future administrations should exerciseto its full potential their power to deny feder-al funding to states whose testing programsare deemed inadequate.So far, the Bush administration has beencautious in exercising that power. During lastyear’s presidential election campaign, theadministration wanted to avoid headlinesabout conflicts with state education agencies;it tried to perpetuate as best it could the con-genial atmosphere of the bipartisan signingceremony when NCLB became law in January 2002.
7
Nevertheless, the states are restive.Many are complaining that NCLB is excessive-ly intrusive; dozens of state legislatures havepassed resolutions criticizing the statute.
8
Such complaints are not necessarily unjusti-fied. Any statute as long and complicated asNCLB inevitably requires that state and localschool officials spend thousands of manhoursfilling out federal forms and complying withprocedural requirements from Washington—even if that red tape produces little or nothing
3
The key torescuing ourchildren from thebureaucratizedgovernmentschools is radicaldecentralization:tuition taxcredits, taxdeductions, and vouchers.Unfortunately,NCLB is takingus in precisely theoppositedirection.

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