The Peculiar Politics of No Child Left Behind

August 1, 2006

This paper was originally presented at the “Will Standards-Based Reform in Education Help Close the Poverty Gap?” Conference on February 23-24, 2006 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

This paper will be included in a forthcoming Brookings Institution Press book, tentatively titled, Will “No Child Left Behind” Help Close the Poverty Gap?, to be edited by Adam Gamoran.

The modern era is considered one of the most politically polarized in history. On Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans frequently engage in highly charged ideological battles. A notable divergence from the strident partisanship occurred in 2001 as a left-right coalition formed that successfully steered the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) through Congress. When President Bush signed the bill into law in January 2002, Senator Edward M. Kennedy stood by his side. Four years later, NCLB faces stiff resistance from state and local authorities. Ironically, given the bipartisan support for the law, the rebellion against NCLB also seems to come from both Democrats and Republicans—from the political left and the right. On the one hand, some states and local school districts feel they are getting a raw deal because the federal government is not doing enough, especially in terms of funding, to help local educators meet the requirements of the act. The state of Connecticut, for example, is suing the Department of Education for more NCLB money to cover student assessment. The state of Utah, on the other hand, has a more fundamental objection, that NCLB trespasses on state sovereignty over educational matters. Only scaling back the law’s ambitious reach, not more money, will satisfy this complaint.

Most of what we know about anti-NCLB sentiment comes from press coverage. Scant research has methodically examined the politics of NCLB or marshaled empirical evidence to investigate support and opposition to the act at the state level. This study analyses national polling data to assess public opinion on NCLB and examines the political activities of states and localities to evaluate political resistance to the act.

The political opposition strikes at the heart of NCLB. The goal of making schools more equitable, in particular, of improving the education of children from poor families, brought together the bipartisan coalition supporting NCLB. Prior to NCLB, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) operated as a typical federal program pursuing redistributive objectives; it allocated additional resources to low income schools to purchase supplies, personnel, curricula, and other educational materials that schools in impoverished communities could not otherwise afford. Educators used these additional resources to improve the education of poor children. Reauthorizations of ESEA through 1994 left this arrangement intact. The theory was simple: more money produces better education, and high poverty schools need more money.

The theory of NCLB is different. Resources are viewed as incentives. In exchange for federal monies, local educators agree to produce certain outcomes. If they do not produce the promised outcomes, federal funding is cut off. With the exception of the teacher quality portions of NCLB, the law takes an agnostic position on how educators should convert resources into student achievement. The sanctions of NCLB—parental choice, supplemental services, reconstitution of schools—are components of the new incentive structure and do not produce new revenue streams. Schools that do not make adequate yearly progress with black, Hispanic, or poor children face the threat of these sanctions. Putting a new incentive structure into place creates winners and losers, and we can expect those interests to play out in the politics surrounding NCLB’s implementation.

After this introduction, the paper is organized by five sections. The first section reviews national polling data on NCLB. Opponents to NCLB have argued that the more people know about the law, the more likely they are to oppose it. Is this true? More generally, as the accountability provisions of NCLB are now being enforced, is public support for the law waning? The second section turns to state politics. What does the research literature say about how have states responded to NCLB?

The third section explains empirical methods employed to analyze state reactions. I devised a scale to reflect the magnitude of state rebellion against the act. On one end of the scale are states that have taken legislative or legal action against NCLB. On the other end of the scale are states that have either taken no action against the act or have defeated legislative efforts to circumvent NCLB. Using this scale, I test several factors that may influence a state’s response to NCLB, among them, political culture, student achievement, demographic characteristics, and resource constraints. The fourth section describes the findings of the analysis.

The fifth section of the paper concludes by assessing whether state and local opposition to the implementation of NCLB has weakened the foundation of NCLB’s political support. What obstacles must NCLB overcome to survive? The left-right coalition that originally supported No Child Let Behind rallied around the belief that NCLB would help children in poverty. Has that changed? Has opposition to NCLB undermined the view that the law represents a legitimate means of improving the education of poor and minority students?