Policy Debate: You Decide


The States, the Federal Government, and Public Education

The United States stands out among developed nations for its early and strong support of free public education. The provision of primary and secondary education has historically been the responsibility of state and local governments. Not until the 1960s did the federal government provide substantial funding for public schools. Even so, primary and secondary education remains largely funded by state and local governments: today, the federal government provides only 10 percent of the total spending on K–12 education. Since the 1980s, presidents have sought to respond to widespread concerns about the quality of American public education. Despite all the talk about education in Washington, the federal effort to improve public education remained primarily symbolic until 2002, with the passage of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law.

No Child Left Behind dramatically expanded the federal role in public education. The goal of the law is to improve the quality of education by holding schools accountable for results. It requires testing in reading and math in grades 3 to 8. The test results, which are reported to parents and to the federal government, are broken down by school, grade, race, ethnicity, and income level. Schools that fail to show steady progress in all subgroups of students are required to take remedial actions, which include extra tutoring for students and additional professional training for teachers. Schools that continue to fail can ultimately be closed and their staffs replaced. The goal is to move all students up to proficiency in math and reading by 2014. The law provides extra funding to help schools meet this goal.

Defenders of the strong federal role in the No Child Left Behind Act point out that many states and localities have failed to deliver quality education and have especially neglected low-income students. Federal action is needed because an educated population is an important national resource. The country needs an educated population to compete internationally.

Moreover, supporters of the law believe that the federal government is in the best position to enforce educational standards because many state and local governments are unduly influenced by teachers’ unions, which have long resisted standards and accountability in the schools. Federal action is particularly needed to ensure that low- income and minority students receive a quality education. Because their parents are not powerful and because their school districts are often resource poor, these students are frequently neglected by state and local districts. It is up to the federal government to see that all children have a chance to succeed.

Critics of No Child Left Behind denounce the law as an unfunded mandate. They argue that the federal government has not provided adequate resources to support the additional services that the law requires. Even though many of the services mandated in the law for failing schools are desirable, states simply do not have the money to pick up the tab.

Opponents also argue that No Child Left Behind is an intrusive law. It imposes a “one size fits all” model on schools, which should respond to local needs. Many suburban parents and educators, for example, reject the law’s emphasis on testing. They believe that education should promote critical thinking, not the rote learning required to succeed on standardized tests. Some educators also argue that the law’s emphasis on reading, writing, and mathematics neglects other academic subjects, such as social studies and arts. Because needs are so diverse, education policy demands the kind of flexibility that only states and localities can ensure. Critics claim that in usurping the state role, No Child Left Behind not only undermines state sovereignty but also threatens the future of public education.

Intense disagreements about how to reform the law prevented Congress from agreeing on a reauthorization plan for No Child Left Behind in 2007. As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the Obama administration created Race to the Top, a grant program to fund state and local education reform. In future, it will fall to President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress to revise No Child Left Behind to win wide support.

What would be one benefit of having the national government force states to use standardized testing to demonstrate student progress? What would be one drawback?
Why do critics call the No Child Left Behind law an unfunded mandate that will harm low-income and minority students?
Why do supporters of the No Child Left Behind law believe that the federal government is better able than state and local governments to ensure that all children receive a high-quality education?
Is education an area that should be left to state control, or should the national government play a larger role?

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