The federal No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to improve public schools by setting clear performance standards and enforcing meaningful consequences if those standards went unmet. This was such a wonderful-sounding idea that the NCLB was ushered into law with unprecedented bipartisan support.

Another reason for the law’s broad appeal is its lack of specificity. The federal government demands that states set standards, but doesn’t dictate their content. The feds insist that schools make "adequate yearly progress," but leave the definition of that term to the states. In other words, NCLB is a politician’s dream: It provides an opportunity to be seen as doing something, without necessarily having to do anything.

Michigan is living that dream.

Earlier this month, the state Board of Education voted unanimously to redefine the term "adequate yearly progress" so that only 762 schools will be expected to fall below the standard next year instead of the 1,444 expected to fail under the current definition. The state board must now seek approval of their change from the U.S. Department of Education, which they are likely to get.

The official justification for lowering Michigan’s education standards is to allow for "statistical error" in the determination of which schools are failing. In other words, if there is a slight chance that a borderline school could be considered "adequate," the Board wants to exempt it from having to follow the improvement measures required under the NCLB. Acting State Superintendent of Schools Jeremy Hughes told The Ann Arbor News, "For the purposes of meeting AYP, we're going to give schools the benefit of the doubt."

Rather than giving children the benefit of the doubt, by insisting on NCLB remedies whenever schools seem to be failing, Michigan’s top public school officials want to give schools the benefit of the doubt.

If the education feds approve Michigan’s plan, it won’t be the first time the state will have redefined "adequacy." In the summer of 2002, 1,513 schools failed to meet Michigan’s standards. Notwithstanding federal assurances that states couldn’t just dumb-down their standards to circumvent the NCLB, Michigan did just that. It lowered the bar, requiring as few as 38 percent of students to pass the MEAP in order for a school to be considered "adequate" (in place of the original 75 percent requirement). Under this new definition, the number of "failing" schools dropped from 1,513 to just 216.

Consider what might happen if McDonald's followed the Michigan Board of Education’s management model. It could lower its standards for the definition of an "adequately cooked" burger, with ample allowance for "culinary error." If it looked like a patty showed some sign of having been exposed to heat, then McDonald’s would give itself "the benefit of the doubt," slap it on a bun and right into your hands. Mmmmmmmm.

Given the lengths to which the state Board of Education is going to circumvent NCLB’s remedies, or at least to minimize the number of schools to which they are applied, you might imagine that those remedies are truly Draconian. Hardly. Schools that fail to make AYP must simply come up with and implement an improvement plan, and allow students to attend other public schools. Not private schools, mind you, just other public schools. If the school still fails to perform in subsequent years, it can theoretically be restructured, and its staff reassigned.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of the NCLB saga is that even if states were not doing their best to elude its consequences, it would still do next to nothing to improve public education. Getting schools to write up improvement plans? How much difference will that make? The Soviet Union had more "Five Year Plans" than you could shake a stick at, but that didn’t prevent the collapse of its government-run economy.

As for restructuring, it is nothing more than a game of musical chairs. Even in the most recidivistically deficient schools, NCLB never calls for a single employee to be let go. They’ll just get plunked down in other schools. Maybe in your school.

And public school "choice"? Breaking a monopoly requires more than allowing consumers to move to another of the same monopoly’s outlets. When the Supreme Court ruled that Microsoft was a monopoly, what would the public have said if the court’s remedy was for consumers to simply switch to buying different Microsoft products?

Though setting real standards and implementing real consequences in education truly is a wonderful idea, federal intervention is a misguided and embarrassingly anachronistic way of going about it. Rather than taking our cue from the government-devised Five Year Plans of a now-defunct communist state, perhaps there is another model for creating healthy incentives for effective, efficient, responsive service. Wasn’t there another economic system that went up against communism back in the 20th century? And didn’t it seem to work out pretty well by comparison?

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Andrew J. Coulson is senior fellow in education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.