U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, shown here with President Bush and her husband,
Robert Spellings, was sworn into office on January 31, 2005. She has promised “room to maneuver”
in administering the No Child Left Behind Act, but she says states should not expect many waivers.
The No Child Left Behind Act, passed by Congress in 2002,
is a landmark in federal education law. In the words of a federal government Web site devoted to the act, NCLB is designed to improve student achievement through "strong incentives for better academic results," "more (policy) freedom for states and communities," "proven education methods" and "more choices for
parents." The stated intention of the law is to see all American children
achieve high standards, regardless of "poverty, race, ethnicity, disability (or) limited English proficiency."
In October, a national coalition of more than 20
organizations dealing with education, civil rights, children, disabilities and
citizens’ concerns called for major changes to NCLB. The coalition’s requested
reforms included changes in the act’s progress measurements, sanctions and
funding. Among other specific changes, the coalition is collectively requesting
a raise in authorized levels of federal NCLB money to cover a substantial
percentage of the costs that states and districts will incur in carrying out the
remedies required under the NCLB in cases where students repeatedly demonstrate
weak academic performance. The coalition also argues that the federal government
has failed to "fully fund Title I" federal monies for disadvantaged children.
Since these Title I monies are, along with other federal title monies, an
important part of the money available to schools for NCLB, the coalition argues
the NCLB is underfunded and is thereby failing "to ensure that 100 percent of
eligible children are served."
Kimberly Wells, director of State and Federal Programs at
Central Michigan University’s Charter Schools Office, has researched the
question of NCLB funding.
She notes that the U.S. Government Accountability Office
addressed the question of NCLB’s funding earlier this year. It found that NCLB
is not a mandate because the requirements in the law are a result of states and
local districts voluntarily deciding to participate in a federal financial
Under the GAO’s reading of the law, states choose to accept
federal funding in exchange for performing annual testing and offering a
plethora of assistance to failing schools, such as tutoring, transportation to
alternative schools of choice, mandatory hiring of highly qualified teachers and
paraprofessionals, reopening failing schools as charter schools and replacing
existing school administration and staff. Thus, Wells explains: "In order to
receive federal financial assistance, schools and local districts agree to play
by certain rules. Otherwise, they can decide to opt out of taking federal
Critics of the NCLB’s current structure, however, argue
that this view is an unrealistically narrow interpretation of the predicament
states face. A state that chooses to opt out of NCLB requirements will also
forgo a significant portion of some of the federal title monies associated with
the act. These federal dollars have become a significant part of states’
education budgets, the critics claim, and states cannot reasonably be asked to
do without this money.
While several states across the nation have explored the
possibility of opting out of NCLB, even to the point of drafting resolutions to
do so, Michigan has never entertained the option. Yvonne Caamal-Canul, director
of school improvement for the Michigan Department of Education, says: "Our
office supports the moral imperative of NCLB. We are working closely with the
federal government with the interpretation of the law."
Wells believes the acceptance of federal funding should
come with increased accountability. "The responsibilities of NCLB are great, but
so is the financial investment made by taxpayers supporting education. If the
public is willing to commit large amounts of resources to education, they have
the right to expect quality schools," says Wells. "It is irresponsible for the
education community to constantly ask for more funding while at the same time
fighting accountability measures found in NCLB such as annual testing, expanded
choice for parents, additional services for struggling students and access to
"NCLB is not an unfunded mandate," she states. "First of
all, it is not a mandate. Secondly, states are receiving adequate funding to
implement the provisions of NCLB."
Wells also says federal funding for education has grown at
a record pace. "Total taxpayer investment in K-12 education in the United States
for the 2003-2004 school year was over $501.3 billion, exceeding that for
national defense," she states. Other supporters of NCLB argue that federal
funding for education is at an all time high and point to the 40 percent
increase in education funding during the Bush administration. Yet many educators
say that even the recent influx of federal NCLB money does not pay for new
requirements for comprehensive state assessment systems, highly qualified
personnel, sophisticated data management systems and intensive school
improvement efforts. Caamal-Canul argues that this is the case in Michigan.
"In order to deliver adequate support of the NCLB
requirements, schools and districts have to retool their existing organizational
structure," says Caamal-Canul. "This requires human capital to implement,
monitor and support NCLB sanctions. Title I monies cover expenses that are tied
to the actual education of the children, but not to the expenses for the
administration of the sanctions."
The core component of NCLB is grade-level assessment.
Michigan already has some testing in place: The Michigan Educational Assessment
Program tests are being administered in several grades, and additional testing
is currently being added. Michigan already had a functioning data collection
process, but given NCLB requirements, it will have to change its methods to
include a disaggregation of the data based on gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic
level, special education needs, limited English proficiency, homelessness and
"Though Michigan was years beyond many other states in the
assessment and data collection of students, the data collection infrastructure
in Michigan was not set up to support the new requirements charged by the NCLB
Act," says Caamal-Canul.
If a school fails to achieve NCLB’s Adequate Yearly
Progress requirements for two consecutive years or more, federally required
sanctions include offering students in these schools transportation to more
successful schools and to supplemental services in the form of tutoring. But
again, infrastructure and manpower to implement such mandates are feared to
exceed school district budgets.
"In order to offer the kind of transportation required by
NCLB, a district must drastically rethink staffing and equipment," says
Caamal-Canul. "Likewise, organizing a multitude of tutoring services to support
the ‘supplemental services’ provision will have to require at least a full-time
person, possibly more, to fulfill the obligations of such a monumental task."
The nonprofit Education Leaders Council, which includes
elected state education officials and supports standards-based education reform,
conducted a cost analysis last year for collection, disaggregation, reporting of
student achievement data, and implementing choice transportation and
supplemental services. The research found Title I funds to be adequate to cover
the state’s costs. In contrast, Michigan Education Association spokesperson
Karen Schulz recently pointed to a National Education Association study showing
that the federal government underfunded grants to Michigan local education
agencies by almost $400 million, and underfunded Michigan’s special education
grants by more than $350 million.
Caamal-Canul concurs that Title I funding is tight. "Title
I monies in Michigan are already in short supply. Monies received this year were
based on the poverty census of 2000, when the economy in Michigan was up and the
poverty numbers down, and before NCLB was even passed," she reports. "Serving
poverty numbers that are far higher in the current economy presents obvious
A third area of contention is NCLB "flexibility." NCLB
supporters say the law allows local communities and schools a great deal of
discretion in the way they ultimately use their federal funds. When NCLB was
passed, it was advertised as enabling states and local communities to use
federal monies to pursue their own strategies for raising student achievement,
so they could experiment with innovative ways to improve education.
"When implementing provisions of the law, states and local
educational agencies have the ability to choose fiscally responsible and
reasonable solutions," argues Wells. "It is important that states, districts and
schools work together to develop innovative solutions for implementing the
provisions of NCLB. Parents with children in failing schools do not want to be
told that the school cannot afford to pay for their child to be transported to
another school or to receive special tutoring services. By sharing best
practices and pooling resources, (the) states, districts and schools can make
Caamal-Canul agrees that there is flexibility in the spirit
of the law. "However," she adds, "no one could have predicted the stratospheric
number of situations at the local level this flexibility would result in."
Some states and districts have reported that the law’s
promise of flexibility has yet to become reality. "In Michigan," says
Caamal-Canul, "we recently attempted to use a flexibility option. We worked
closely with the ISDs and found a solution that was legal, research-based and
meaningful. Our solution was found unacceptable by the federal government.
What’s flexible about that?" Michigan is currently challenging the decision. She
adds, "States and districts I talk to all over the country are dealing with
Changes in the Future?
The re-election of President Bush and Republican control of
the U.S. Congress make it likely that the NCLB will continue to be a key vehicle
for federal education policy. The likelihood of modifications to the law is
unclear. The new U.S. secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, has said that
states will have room to maneuver with NCLB, but that they should not count on