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April 19, 2004

No Child Left Behind: No Unfunded Mandate

It has been said, more than once, that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act is a mandate that the federal government has failed to fund. Not true. The law is neither unfunded nor, with one exception, much of a mandate.

On the funding side, it costs about twenty dollars to test a student, the only thing NCLB requires all schools to do. Meanwhile, federal dollars have risen steadily since the law's passage; the average district now receives three hundred dollars more per pupil from Washington than it did in 2000.

Other than this test requirement, schools are asked only to show adequate yearly progress toward state- (not federal-) determined goals.

What are the consequences of failing to make this progress? Not much. If a school fails for two years running, the only requirement is to let its students transfer to one of the district's nonfailing schools.

In most cases, inner-city children are not given access to a suburban school, a private school, or a charter school outside the district's boundaries.

Roughly 20 percent of students in big cities currently attend "failing" schools, a percentage certain to rise as the "adequate yearly progress" rule becomes increasingly stringent. Unless schools improve quickly—or states ease their academic standards—most big-city schools are in danger of being defined as failing. With every school so designated, the choice mandate vanishes.

The parental demand for choice remains high. Surveys show that over a fifth of the parents in failing schools would like to consider an alternative. But in practice less than 1 percent of all students in failing schools are switching schools. Some hurdles, such as transportation costs, are practical. But many school districts are actively discouraging parents when they apply. As one Worcester, Massachusetts, official put it, "the feds told us we had to offer a choice, not the parents' choice, but a choice."

After three years, failing schools must also give students tutoring or other extra services. For this, the federal government is providing more than enough funds to pay current costs—and still more money is on its way. The original idea was to bring new providers into education to supplement the work of failed schools, but in many districts the majority of these services are being provided by the district itself.

If schools fail five years in a row, they are to be "reconstituted." Will this mandate, at least, have a bite? Perhaps, but early returns suggest that it has more the teeth of a minnow than of a shark.

Still, there remains one potent mandate. Because of the NCLB testing requirement, parents and taxpayers are being told, more clearly than ever, how much students are learning at school. The feds are making school officials and union leaders squirm under the bright light of continuously available information about school performance. What's so bad about that?