The Administrative Burden of No Child Left Behind

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Published April 06, 2007

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Congress may soon consider the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Lawmakers should address, among other problems, the massive administrative and bureaucratic costs the federal government imposes on state and local authorities.

Since 1965, American taxpayers have invested more than $778 billion on federal programs for elementary and secondary education. This spending has been coupled with the growth of an extensive federal education bureaucracy that consumes federal funds and imposes administrative costs on states and local communities.

The General Accounting Office reported in 1994 that 13,400 federally funded full-time employees in state education agencies worked to implement federal education programs — three times the number then working at the Department of Education.

The same report found that state education agencies were forced to reserve a far greater share of federal than state funds for state-level use — by a ratio of 4 to 1 — due to the administrative and regulatory burden of federal programs.

Because it cost so much more to allocate a federal dollar than a state dollar, 41 percent of the financial support and staffing of state education agencies was a product of federal dollars and regulations. In other words, the federal government was the cause of 41 percent of the administrative burden at the state level despite providing just 7 percent of overall education funding.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 dramatically increased federal spending on and authority over public education in America. According to the Department of Education, the Bush Administration's budget request of $24.4 billion for NCLB in 2008 would be a 41 percent increase over 2001 spending. This budget request also includes a 59 percent increase in Title I grants to local educational agencies.

But with these funding increases has come an increased administrative burden on state and local authorities. NCLB created new rules and regulations for schools and significantly increased compliance costs for state and local governments. According to the Office of Management and Budget, NCLB increased state and local governments' annual paperwork burden by 6,680,334 hours, at an estimated cost of $141 million.

A number of states have published reports estimating the cost of complying with No Child Left Behind. For example, Connecticut found that the state government would spend more than $17 million in 2007 to comply with NCLB. Virginia estimated that state implementation costs totaled approximately $20 million per year.

One way to reduce these costs would be to allow states to opt out of NCLB. States could choose between the status quo and an alternative agreement with the federal government. Under this agreement, elected state officials would have broad authority to consolidate existing federal programs and refocus funding on state initiatives to improve academic achievement.

In exchange for this flexibility, states would continue to monitor and report academic progress and pursue the broad goal of improving educational opportunities for the disadvantaged that has been the focus of federal policy since 1965. This approach would restore federalism in education, allowing state leaders to address local needs and priorities while increasing accountability. A similar policy was proposed in the Bush Administration's original blueprint for NCLB.

Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) are proposing to make this option available to states in a plan called "Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success," or "A PLUS." It would give states the opportunity to use federal resources on locally directed programs without the administrative burden of federal program requirements. More resources would be available for classroom expenditures and other education programs that local leaders believe would benefit students.

Importantly, under the House and Senate proposals, public schools would continue to be accountable to parents and the public through state-level testing and reporting that would ensure transparency and a continued focus on improving students' academic achievement. Since decisions would be made at the state level, parents, taxpayers, teachers and school leaders would have a greater opportunity to influence the decisions that affect local students.

Simplifying education policy in this way would bring about greater transparency in federal education spending and, ultimately, greater public accountability over taxpayer funding of education.

Dan Lips is and Education Analyst and Evan Feinberg is a Research Assistant in Domestic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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