The Politics of No Child Left Behind: Lessons from the Clinton Years Taught Washingtonians That Dollars Need to Be Tied to Gains in Student Performance. but Did the Need to Build Consensus Give Too Much Leeway to State Capitols?

By Rudalevige, Andrew | Education Next, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

The Politics of No Child Left Behind: Lessons from the Clinton Years Taught Washingtonians That Dollars Need to Be Tied to Gains in Student Performance. but Did the Need to Build Consensus Give Too Much Leeway to State Capitols?


Rudalevige, Andrew, Education Next


THE SCENE IN JANUARY 2002 WAS A CIVICS TEXT COME TO LIFE. FLANKED by jubilant members of Congress and standing in front of a cheering crowd, President George W. Bush declared the start of a "new era" in American public education with the signing of the No Child Left Behind Act. The new law represented a sweeping reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was originally enacted in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty--and has since been reauthorized every four to six years, usually under a catchy new banner. Its signature program, Title I, funnels nearly $12 billion annually to schools to support the education of disadvantaged children. "As of this hour," said the president, "America's schools will be on a new path of reform, and a new path of results." Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., shared the president's enthusiasm. "This is a defining issue about the future of our nation and about the future of democracy, the future of liberty, and the future of the United States in leading the free world," the legislative icon had proclaimed on the Senate floor. "No piece of legislation will have a greater impact or influence on that."

While No Child Left Behind does mark an unprecedented extension of federal authority over states and local schools, the law's accountability measures were not, for the most part, newly developed in 2001. No Child Left Behind was the cumulative result of a standards-and-testing movement that began with the release of the report A Nation at Risk by the Reagan administration in 1983. The movement gained momentum with the 1989 education summit in Charlottesville, Virginia, at which President George H. W. Bush and the nation's governors set broad performance goals for American schools. By 1991, President Bush's "America 2000" proposal included voluntary national testing tied to "world class" standards, a provision that led to the bill's death by Republican filibuster. In 1994 President Clinton signed into law "Goals 2000," which provided grants to help states develop academic standards.

The sea change came with the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which signaled a nationwide commitment to standards-based reform. The reauthorization required states to develop content and performance standards for K-12 schools. Congress also adopted the notion of "adequate yearly progress" that later became the linchpin of accountability in No Child Left Behind. States were required to make "continuous and substantial" progress toward the goal of academic proficiency for all students. However, there was no deadline for doing so; indeed, consequences were largely absent from the law. State standards were supposed to be in place by 1997-98, assessments and final definitions of adequate yearly progress by 2000-01. But the administration never withheld funds from states that failed to meet these timelines. The Clinton administration, concerned that cracking down would rile the Republican Congress, focused on providing states with assistance in the development process. As of the original 1997 deadline, the American Federation of Teachers found that just 17 states had "clear and specific standards" in English, math, social studies, and science. Nevertheless, the 1994 reauthorization jumpstarted the process of developing standards and tests in most states.

By the mid-1990s, then, the themes of No Child Left Behind were already on the table. In many ways the final ingredient was President George W. Bush, who persuaded some Republicans to accept proposals that they had rejected just one session of Congress earlier and tacked with Democrats toward common ground. In so doing, however, agreements in principle sometimes papered over real disagreements regarding policy particulars. This meant that many key issues in No Child Left Behind were postponed until implementation. As a result, the Education Department's rule-making process and its enforcement practices will be vital in determining how seriously states and schools will take the new requirements.

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