The education bill that emerged from Congress and President Bush signed is another demonstration of an ill-conceived attempt by Congress to solve America's education crises by federal mandate.
Congress is expert at selling snake oil and the "No Child Left Behind Act" is a prime example. In spite of its pretentious name, the bill will do little to help children who are falling behind because they are trapped in failing public schools. Mostly, the bill allows the federal government to further usurp the authority of local communities to run their own schools.
The bill includes federal mandates for state testing of students in reading and math in the third through eighth grade and gives extra money to schools with low scores. And, of course, the bill allocates $26.5 billion in federal funds for 2002 — $8 billion more than last year's appropriation.
The bill does contain a limited provision that would allow children to leave schools that don't improve after three years, but they can only transfer to another public school. In most cases, those schools are already overcrowded and so won't accept the additional students.
For the past 50 years or more, we have observed a steady trend toward a situation where the federal government makes all the big decisions about education. Giving the federal government an even larger role, through federally mandated tests and increased funding, hardly seems promising.
Twenty years ago we had some hope of seeing a decrease in federal involvement in education. At that time, Ronald Reagan came into office with an agenda to abolish the newly created federal Department of Education, which he dubbed "President Carter's new bureaucratic boondoggle."
The Republican Party platform also favored dumping the new federal bureau. Republicans even sponsored some legislation to do that. Today things are different. Even though George Bush said during his campaign that he didn't want to be the superintendent of America's schools, the bill he signed Jan. 8 increases the role that the federal government plays in education and the amount of money that it spends on it.
There is really no difference any more between what the Democrats and Republicans believe about what the federal role should be in education. The only thing they disagree on is how much money it should spend.
Apparently, what is most important to congressional Republicans is to not be seen as "anti-education." In their view, that means spending lots of taxpayer funds on local schools. There are only a few members of Congress who believe that education is something that should be left in the hands of parents, or at least local and state leaders, rather than to the federal government. It has been that handful of people who have supported ideas such as vouchers and tuition tax credits, which would put money back into the hands of parents rather than bureaucrats.
But there may still be hope for the future. Early versions of the bill included some promising aspects such as allowing students in failing public schools to attend a private school if they chose to. Although these were taken out of the final version of the bill, at least Bush put the idea of choice on the table. Even though the original proposal was limited in scope, it was more or less in the right direction and started the debate moving at the federal level. We should only hope that the ball is picked up again by the Bush administration and that a future Congress can carry it farther down the court.
In the meantime, states are pushing ahead to implement parental choice on their own. We could have parental choice in every state within five years if the parents, activists and local elected officials are willing to work for it. Last year alone, at least 20 states proposed implementing school choice either through vouchers or tuition tax credits and today we have 10 states that have passed school choice measures.
Those measures, enacted at the local rather than the federal level, may be our best hope for a brighter future where indeed no child may be left behind.
David Salisbury is director of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom.