The Perfect Law

The Perfect Law

No Child Left Behind and the Assault on Public Schools

Imagine a law that would transfer hundreds of billions of dollars a year from the public sector to the private sector, reduce the size of government, and wound or kill a large Democratic power base. Impossible, you say. But the law exists. It is Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2001, better known as the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB).

The Bush administration has often been accused of Orwellian doublespeak in naming its programs, and NCLB is a masterpiece of a law to accomplish the opposite of what it apparently intends. While claiming to be the law that-finally!-improves public education, NCLB sets up public schools to fail, setting the stage for private education companies to move in on the $400 billion spent annually on K-12 education ($500 billion according to recent statements by Secretary of Education Rod Paige). The consequent destruction or reduction of public education would shrink government and cripple or eliminate the teachers’ unions, nearly five million mostly Democratic voters. It’s a law to drool over if you’re Karl Rove or Grover Norquist. The Perfect Law, in fact, as in The Perfect Storm.

It doesn’t look that way at first glance. Indeed, NCLB appears to fly in the face of all that the Bush administration stands for. That administration has tried to deregulate and outsource virtually everything it touches. Yet from this most deregulatory of administrations comes NCLB laying 1,100 pages of law and reams of regulations on public schools. On closer inspection, those pages are just the law’s shiny surface to blind and confuse onlookers.

The principal means to accomplish this amazing end is called Adequate Yearly Progress or AYP. All schools that accept Title I money from the federal government are compelled by the law to show AYP. If they don’t, they are labeled “failing schools.” The official tag is “in need of improvement” but no one outside of the U. S. Department of Education uses that term.

The concept of AYP in Title I is not new, but NCLB yokes it to sanctions that become increasingly punitive with each consecutive year of failure. These sanctions alone should have been a clue to Democrats that the law was not what it said it was, for punishment is not an effective means to achieve either individual or institutional change.

NCLB requires not only that each school make AYP, but that each of many subgroups make AYP. For many schools, once test scores are disaggregated by gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, special education, and English Language Learners, there are thirty-seven separate categories. All categories must make AYP. If one fails, the school fails. Not surprisingly, a study found that more diverse schools were more likely to fail-the odds that one group doesn’t make it are against them. Even if all subgroups make AYP, it counts only if 95 percent of the kids in each group showed up on...