The No Child Left Behind Act: Two Years Later
Recently, we marked the second anniversary of the No Child Left Behind education reforms. Ever since President Bush came to Hamilton to sign this measure into law, much has been made of the progress and promise of No Child Left Behind. And for good reason. It represents the single greatest shift in federal education policy in more than a generation. It was President Bush's first domestic policy initiative - and continues to be his most important.
After spending more than $300 billion in federal education dollars over the past 35 years with little or no results, No Child Left Behind established a framework to grant states and local schools unprecedented flexibility in the way they deliver an education to our students and, at the same time, ensure they are held accountable for results. Prior to No Child Left Behind, the federal government enacted a patchwork of education laws that essentially shipped billions of dollars to states with no framework to gauge success and - frankly - no expectation of results. But in 2002, that practice ended.
At the two-year mark, No Child Left Behind has become the first federal education law ever to be successfully implemented in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. In fact, Ohio was one of the first states in the nation to raise its standards to meet the goals of No Child Left Behind. Ohio had its plan to meet the law's requirements in place months before most other states did.
When you pass a law that calls for real change, it will inevitably be followed by some bumps in the road, and some grumbling. That's certainly been the case with No Child Left Behind - but that's to be expected. Meaningful reforms are rarely achieved easily. For example, not everyone embraced the 1996 welfare reform law when it was first enacted. But seven years later, it's considered an unqualified success.
Some claim No Child Left Behind is "underfunded." Not so. In reality, funding to schools attended by the most underprivileged students (those most often "left behind") has increased more in the two years since we enacted No Child Left Behind than it did in the previous eight years combined. And President Bush will request an additional $1 billion in these funds again this year.
Some claim No Child Left Behind "punishes" struggling schools. Not so. In reality, when a school is identified by its state as needing improvement, both the school and the parents of children attending that school qualify immediately for extra help. Additionally, "sunshine" is aimed at these schools so parents whose children attend them know exactly the type of education their child is (or is not) receiving.
And some claim the Bush administration's implementation of No Child Left Behind has been rigid and inflexible. Not so. While it's true the administration has been reluctant to issue waivers to states seeking to escape accountability in the use of federal education funds - avoiding a crucial error made by the previous administration in implementing its own reform plan - the U.S. Department of Education has been willing to listen. Under a brand new rule proposed by the Department, for example, children with the most significant cognitive disabilities will be allowed to take an alternate achievement test to prove they are learning and are not simply being passed-off from one grade to the next. This new rule - which arises after significant consultation with states and local school district - grants significant flexibility to local schools without depriving children with disabilities or their parents of their rights. Incidentally, President Bush soon will request an additional $1 billion to assist these special needs students as well.
There's been one undeniable impact of No Child Left Behind in the two years since the President came to Hamilton: the public education system is now focusing on the needs of disadvantaged children like never before.
"We've been looking harder at how our special education students have been performing on the state proficiency and achievement tests," one local school official told the Hamilton Journal-News. "As a result we have become aware of deficiencies we have in serving the needs of those students, and we are in the process of better serving their needs in reading and math."
That's commendable. And it's happening in school districts across the nation. No Child Left Behind has changed the question from "How can we educate some children?" to "How will we educate all children?" It's about changing attitudes. After two years of ups and downs, we're succeeding. Let's throw aside the attacks. A high-quality education is within reach for more children now than ever before.