WASHINGTON – Two years after a bipartisan consensus passed No Child Left Behind (search), the far-reaching education reform legislation is emerging as a potential election issue, with Democrats focusing their attacks on what they say is persistent underfunding that could jeopardize the measure's success.
Educator unions praise the law for reaching out to special education and limited English proficient students, but say the bill faces predictable difficulties because of its unwieldy size and the expansive changes it demands.
"The administration's goals in NCLB are goals that the American Federation of Teachers (search) has advocated for a long time. We want to make this law work, but we have concerns about the way some of the parts have been implemented," said AFT spokeswoman Celia Lose.
President Bush, however, has praised the new law's accomplishments.
"What's interesting in this piece of legislation is that because of measuring, you're able to determine whether or not a child can read or write and add and subtract early. And what the measurement system allows you to do is, one, analyze curriculum — you know, is it working, is the reading program we've got working — but also, it enables you to focus attention on a particular child that might slip behind," Bush said Thursday in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
The White House points out that the president's proposed fiscal year 2005 budget represents a 48 percent increase in spending for elementary and secondary education since 2001. Federal funding increased from about $25 billion in 2001 to more than $33 billion in 2003, primarily as a result of the law.
The Bush administration notes that as a result of No Child Left Behind, the federal government is now spending more money for elementary and secondary education that at any other time in American history.
NCLB, which passed the House and Senate by overwhelming majorities in September 2001, aims to improve students' performance in reading and math, particularly those students with the poorest grades, such as minorities and special education students.
The act requires almost all students in every school to test at their grade level for reading, writing and mathematics. Schools unable to meet those measures two years in a row would have to provide more tutoring to students or bus them to better-performing schools.
As part of the legislation, states, districts and schools have had to develop and implement unique accountability plans that are measured up against the successes they are having with raising performance of students in every socio-economic class. They are also required to provide alternatives to students if they can not meet the standards they set and had approved by the Education Department.
The law mandates that teachers have a college major for every core subject they cover, a difficult requirement for small schools where teachers handle multiple subjects, say some experts.
The rules have proven to be too difficult for some. On Tuesday, the Republican-dominated Utah House of Representatives voted to scrap NCLB mandates that would cost more than the federal government is willing to pay.
Lawmakers voted 64-8 to forego some of the federal funds, the first state to do so. The Utah bill still requires state Senate approval and the governor's signature. In Washington, the U.S. Education Department warned Utah that picking and choosing mandates could affect funds for other education programs.
Critics charge that NCLB is underfunded to the tune of $6 billion to $7 billion a year because funding is below authorized levels.
"What we've always been critical about is the lack of funding. It's an unfunded mandate on our states," said Democratic National Committee (search) Communications Director Deborah DeShong.
But Krista Kafer, an education expert at the Heritage Foundation (search), said the underfunding argument is a red herring because even though the allocated funds don't hit the maximum authorized level does not mean the programs aren't getting enough money.
"The arguments that it's underfunded are deceiving in the sense that the authorization levels are funding ceilings not floors. The point of schools is to have children proficient in math and reading; they're actually getting more money for what they should already be doing," Kafer said.
NCLB has received "an enormous amount of money" at a time "when you're just not seeing these kinds of increases in other domestic spending areas," Kafer said.
Kafer did say that implementation has had mixed success. Some districts have effectively advertised school choice options, but other districts have been "kind of deceptive" about other options for dissatisfied parents, she said.
"One of the best things that has come out of No Child Left Behind is the focus on the need to be proficient in math and reading," Kafer said.
Kafer and Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said some small school districts have difficulty complying with the teacher qualification requirements.
Houston said he is hearing "a lot of rumbling in the system out there" about the difficulty for rural schools to meet the teacher requirements. He said sanctions are too tough for schools that do not meet their goals, and not enough money has been appropriated.
"All of these things require some sort of expenditure. The big argument is whether they provided adequate funds. The federal government says they have. Most of the schools I talk to say they haven’t," Houston said.
Lose, too, said the high expectations have not been met with enough funding.
"States in the current fiscal crisis are hard pressed to meet the terms of the law. If you asked superintendents and people closer to the classroom level, the people who are going to be charged with implementing these reforms, whether the support has been sufficient, I think you'd hear a large cry that it hasn’t," Lose said.
The debate is expected to continue throughout this election year. Although presidential candidates John Kerry and John Edwards both voted for the legislation, Edwards has now identified it as the one mistake he wishes he could take back, said American Enterprise Institute (search) education expert Rick Hess.
"It is likely the various elements of No Child Left Behind are going to be central in the coming year of national debate over domestic policy in the presidential election," Hess said.