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'No Child' Law Picked Apart as Renewal Fight Looms

Rep. George Miller (D-CA), one of the co-authors of No Child Left Behind, says President Bush broke his promise to fund the law.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Rep. George Miller (D-CA), one of the co-authors of No Child Left Behind, says President Bush broke his promise to fund the law.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says reading and math scores are at historic highs.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
Getty Images
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says reading and math scores are at historic highs.

How did No Child Left Behind — the sweeping education law enacted six years ago with lofty expectations and political fanfare — come to be viewed as an unworkable, heavy-handed underfunded mandate, as some critics charge?

The answer depends on whom you talk to, starting with the law's co-author, Rep. George Miller (D-CA).

"No Child Left Behind was the most fundamental reform of federal education policy in 40 years. But when you have the president break his promise to fund those reforms, that poisoned the well," Miller says.

President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law in 2002. The federal plan to improve public schools passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Six years later, the law has to be renewed, and now it's drawing overwhelming bipartisan opposition. Critics are picking it apart, and many of the presidential candidates want to scrap it.

A 'Clumsy' Law

There are other reasons the law has fallen short of expectations, says Roy Romer, former governor of Colorado. Romer is also the former head of the Democratic Party and the former superintendent of schools in Los Angeles.

No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, is "clumsy," requires students to take too many tests and is not as effective as it ought to be, he says.

"That's why it needs to be re-enacted. It needs to be improved. It should not be thrown away," Romer says.

Economist Richard Rothstein offers scathing criticism of the law's most important goal: getting every single student in America to perform at or above grade level by 2014.

"The notion that schools alone can create equal achievement for children of different social backgrounds is not based on any research. It's not based on a true understanding of what the many factors that contribute to student achievement are: [It assumes] that health doesn't matter, housing doesn't matter, that dysfunctional communities don't matter," Rothstein says. "I don't think we can make social policy on the basis of a myth."

Some Republicans in Congress now question whether the law was even necessary.

Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ), who came to Congress the year the NCLB became law, says he would have opposed it and says it has put the U.S. on a slippery slope to federalizing public education.

"Where every child in the country is reading from the exact same book at the exact same hour, taking the same test at the exact same minute — that doesn't bring us to a world-class education. It brings us to mediocrity," Garrett said.

Garrett wants to give states the right to opt out of the law. It's an idea that several governors support, but Congress is unlikely to seriously consider.

So, with the renewal of the law in limbo, opponents have more time to chip away at other things they don't like about it.

Connecticut and a handful of school districts in Michigan, Texas and Vermont have gone so far as to sue the federal government, arguing that the law is an unfunded mandate and therefore unconstitutional.

Spellings Defends 'No Child'

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings doesn't sound like she's losing any sleep over the harsh criticisms of the law, and says reading and math scores are at historic highs.

But that's not because of the NCLB, according to Garrett. He says a study released by the Fordham Foundation, a nonprofit education policy organization, notes improvement in some educational areas but "they're modest compared to improvements we saw prior to NCLB."

In fact, the most dramatic gains in math began long before NCLB became law. Based on the education department's own data, reading scores have remained flat since the law took effect six years ago.

The achievement gap between blacks and whites, meanwhile, is still pretty big. A study from the Center for Education Policy — a public-school advocacy group — shows that if the gains under the law remain as meager as they've been thus far, it'll take decades to eliminate the gaps in math and reading.

Still, Spellings insists that short of a major revamping of the law six years from now, all students will be performing at grade level and there will be no gap.

"Remember, what we're asking for is grade-level reading and math ability by 2014. Is that too much to ask of our schools? I don't think so," Spellings says.

Miller says that Congress is determined to change the "No Child" law — if not this year, then next year, under a new administration. And, he says, those who think that Congress is going to give up on the law are kidding themselves.

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