The Not Quite Overhaul of No Child Left Behind.

The Obama administration released its 2011 budget proposal today, which includes a sweeping overhaul of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The Bush-era education law was widely criticized as an "unfunded mandate" that punished struggling schools and encouraged districts to slough off poor-performing students.

Details of the overhaul are sketchy, but it seems the primary focus is to change the funding structure and accountability standards.

  • Accountability: Under NCLB, all schools were required to meet state-set reading and math standards by 2014; schools that did not make incremental gains toward this goal were classified as "failing" and risked firings and closure. Obama's new plan eliminates this deadline and proposes replacing the math and reading standards with "college- or career-readiness" goals. Instead of being evaluated on a pass/fail basis, the metric for measuring schools' success will be expanded.
  • Funding: The administration also proposes to replace an enrollment-based funding approach with one that partially funds schools based on performance. Under the new funding regime, nearly 30 percent of funds would be disbursed on a competitive basis.

Given the plan's vagueness, it's difficult to assess whether the new accountability standards will be an improvement. But the new funding proposal is problematic. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan compared the funding structure to the administration's $5 billion "Race to the Top" initiative, which asks school districts to compete for federal funds with "innovative" proposals for education reform. Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, is skeptical:

Right now most federal money goes out in formulas, so schools know how much they’ll get, and then use it to provide services for poor children. The department thinks that’s become too much of an entitlement. They want to upend that scheme by making states and districts pledge to take actions the administration considers reform, before they get the money.

I'm wary of applying corporate rules to the K-12 educational establishment, where you reward players who succeed and "innovate" -- and punish those who do not. Reforming public education should mean helping struggling school districts rather than making them compete against better-performing schools for funds to meet basic operating expenses. Underperforming schools will arguably be in the worst position to compete for federal aid; it makes as much sense as asking the unemployed to duke it out over benefits.

The contempt for underperforming schools who feel "entitled" to federal funding mirrors the rhetoric of the welfare debate: Why are we "rewarding" laziness and failure? It assumes that bad schools are bad because their teachers are bad, or they've implemented ineffective policies. But many of these schools are tasked with serving students from the poorest and most crime-ridden areas in the country. How will it help them improve to have their funding cut because they failed to beat another school in the funding race?

Making federal funding contingent on competition also has the same drawbacks as making it contingent on students' test scores: In the same way that schools rigged the system and "taught to the test" under NCLB, school districts will be rewarded not on their ability to educate students but on the ability to write grant proposals.

--Gabriel Arana

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