What Happened to No Child Left Behind?

The unpopular legislation has been waiting seven years for a makeover.
The troubled legacy of No Child Left Behind stands in the way of new education legislation in Washington. (Photo: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc./Getty Images)
Dec 10, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Chances are you still have a bad taste in your mouth from President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Acteven if you don't remember exactly why. It's like everyone was always complaining about it, and then one day it vanished. Only it didn't.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which was popular in its infancy but later met with disapproval, went into effect on Jan. 8, 2002, requiring that economically disadvantaged U.S. public school students meet certain math and reading requirements in order for their schools to receive federal funding.

The act also required states to report data showing student achievement broken down into categories such as gender, ethnicity, income, and English proficiency. This allowed for much-needed insight on how students were faring in the United States, according to NCLB proponents.

But the criticism that came to characterize the program pointed to its preoccupation with standardized tests and certain benchmarks. If schools failed, they faced harsh consequences, including school closings and staff firings, which put added strain on already weak schools.

When Bush left office in 2009, the specter of his NCLB legislation remained.

No Child Left Behind was simply the latest version of the 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which gives Title I funding to schools where a substantial population of students come from low-income families. More than 50 percent of all public schools in the United States are eligible for the funding. But ESEA has been in limbo since 2007 on Capitol Hill, awaiting congressional reauthorization. That’s because of ongoing disagreements on both sides of the political aisleand even within partiesabout tenets of the legislation.

“NCLB reauthorization has been stuck for several years because it's a political hot potato,” says Jack Schneider, education professor and author of Excellence for All: How a New Breed of Reformers Is Transforming America's Public Schools. “NCLB went from being very popular to being almost universally reviled.”

When Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was appointed by President Obama in 2009, he focused heavily on lobbying Congress to pass an updated version of NCLB. When that failed, the Obama administration granted waivers to states enabling them to receive funding if they submitted alternative accountability plans for student proficiency.

But the waivers don't provide as much funding as ESEA could.

Earlier this month, 47 educational advocacy groups, including the National PTA and the Rural School and Community Trust, sent a letter to the U.S. Senate instructing it to reauthorize ESEA immediately. “State waivers from the U.S. Department of Education are an inadequate substitute for a reauthorized ESEA that is already seven years overdue,” the advocacy groups wrote. “We must show our nation's students, educators, families, and communities that we care about our children both as students and as our next generation of leaders. ESEA must be reauthorized.”

This summer, the House of Representatives passed its version of an ESEA bill but only with Republican support and under the threat of a veto by Obama. That bill, which the National Education Association opposed, would have eliminated 42 education programs and kept Title I funding at its 2012 appropriation level of $16.6 billion made via waiver. Now it’s the Senate’s turn to look at the bill, but passage there may be unlikely because Republicans and Democrats are unlikely to compromise.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, recently introduced a 1,150-page bill with revisions to the NCLB. His bill still focuses on high-stakes standardized tests, but it allows states and school districts to create their own plans to help struggling schoolsa difference from the current law. The bill also requires states to link student assessments to Common Core State Standards for reading, math, and science. But the Common Core standards, which have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, have their own critics, especially among Republicans.

In turn Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the ranking Republican on the education committee, plans to unveil his own version of a similar bill. These competing bills set up a probable stalemate in the upcoming midterm election year.

“No one wants to stake a political reputation on it,” Schneider says. “Plus, there's so much partisan bickering right now that it's unlikely a reauthorized bill could make it through the House or Senate.”

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.