NCLB Backlash Casts Harsh Light on Bush Education Record

K-12 Testing

In his weekly column, the New York Times' Michael Winerip has written a disturbing series of articles that put a human face on the trauma and dislocation caused by No Child Left Behind. For example, New York City has allowed 8,000 students to transfer in an effort to comply with the law's "choice" provision, with some schools that were once functioning well ending up overcrowded and lacking resources to handle the newcomers. Winerip sums up the mood of a growing number of those in NCLB's crosshairs by saying, "The federal No Child Left Behind law of 2002 may go down in history as the most unpopular piece of education legislation ever created."


The mounting backlash against No Child Left Behind has grown so intense that some say it is transforming the issue of federal education policy from an asset to a liability for President Bush as he campaigns for reelection.


More and more state officials and educators refuse to suffer in silence as they watch schools that have worked for years to improve academic performance labeled "in need of improvement" and see scarce funds devoted to complying with NCLB's transfer and tutoring provisions that induce chaos, not improvement.


For example, New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey wrote to U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige in October saying implementation of the law was flawed and demanding changes after almost half of public schools with eighth grades and about 75 percent of all high schools in the state were listed as failing. Pointing to the fact that many schools have been labeled "in need of improvement" because of difficulties getting disabled or limited English proficient students to score proficient on state tests, McGreevey wrote, "The inability of just one of these groups to achieve a specified level of proficiency and missing just one of the 40 indicators can subject an entire school to the loss of critical federal funding and the stigma of a 'failed school.' "


The governors of Montana and New Mexico also appealed to Paige in October to change NCLB so it no longer penalizes rural states for being unable to meet mandates such as the "highly qualified" teacher provision. This is nearly impossible for small rural schools where teachers almost always teach multiple courses. Montana Gov. Judy Martz and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson wrote Paige saying, "A rural school with fewer than 100 students lacks similarity to Los Angeles Unified School District. NCLB attempts to treat them the same; they are not. As a result, many rural states and their schools feel as though they have not been considered in NCLB."


In Utah, State Rep. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, said she is planning to introduce legislation that would allow the state to opt out of NCLB. "Does Utah want this much intrusiveness or do we want our schools to be more accountable to parents and their communities?" Dayton asked.


Although no state has yet moved to decline federal education money to protest NCLB requirements, four Vermont schools have decided to forego Title 1 funds, thereby avoiding what some see as the higher costs of compliance. The superintendent of Suffolk, Virginia, public schools has asked his school board to consider rejecting $3.5 million in federal funds. Superintendent Milton R. Liverman said it is not worth the effort, cost and public embarrassment of compliance and sanctions.


In September, the Metropolitan Nashville Board of Education adopted a resolution stating its "serious concerns" about some NCLB provisions and suggesting seven potential changes. Among the problems the board cited: "The requirement for 'all' children to meet the same standard is unrealistic for children who do not speak English and for some special education students," and "The criteria for making schools High Priority and Target Schools have the potential for unintended discrimination against some groups of children."


In October, a group called Citizens for Effective Schools published a full-page open letter to President Bush, Education Secretary Rod Paige and members of Congress in the Washington, D.C. newspaper Roll Call, saying NCLB should be rewritten to stop punishing struggling schools and instead focus on helping them improve.


The outcry has become loud enough to drown out the president's efforts to use NCLB as proof of his claim to be a "compassionate conservative." A recent Washington Post article reported a 14-drop in Bush's approval rating for education since the bill was signed and noted that Democratic candidates who criticize the law are increasingly popular with prospective voters. Howard Dean, the Democratic leader in fundraising and many polls, for example, is among NCLB's strongest critics.


The Post article quotes Kay Goodwin, West Virginia's Education Secretary: "This is a massive public relations effort on the federal level that, in truth, is creating a crisis of confidence" in classrooms nationwide.


o The Citizens for Effective Schools web site is at
o Michael Winerip's column, On Education, appears in the New York Times each Wednesday and is archived at [registration required, but no fees].


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