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WSJ Editorial: No Child Left Behind’s Successor

Conservative reformers have had major successes, notably on welfare in 1996. But when a reform doesn’t turn out as hoped, they need to adapt. A case in point is No Child Left Behind, which the GOP Congress is now preparing to leave behind.

This week the House plans to debate the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which lapsed in 2007 and needs revision. A bipartisan compromise has emerged from the Senate and House that isn’t perfect but would represent the largest devolution of federal control to the states in a quarter-century. It’s far better than the status quo that would continue if nothing passes.

No Child Left Behind, signed by George W. Bush in 2002, was the product of an imperfect union between Republicans who wanted more school accountability and Democrats who wanted more spending. In return for more federal funds, states were required to test students annually and report the results. One hundred percent of students were supposed to rate proficient by 2014, and failing schools were required to restructure under federal guidelines.

Yet few of the law’s goals have been achieved. Some states dumbed down standards so more students would pass the tests. Then the Obama administration issued blanket waivers from the law’s mandates—but only if states adopted Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s prescriptions for teacher evaluations and common academic standards.

Washington’s heavy hand has produced a political backlash that crosses ideological lines, uniting teachers unions who want less accountability with Republicans who want less federal control. The ESEA compromise tries to accommodate this revolt by balancing federalism and accountability.

Gone are No Child Left Behind’s proficiency benchmarks and mandated federal interventions. The Education Department wouldn’t be able to prescribe accountability systems and standards. Yet importantly, the bill retains annual testing requirements for students from third to eighth grade (17 tests in total from K-12).

Testing in education is crucial to measure progress and ensure public accountability. Hence, states would have to publish test results disaggregated by race, socioeconomic status and disabilities. They would also have to create accountability systems for schools with the stipulation that quantitative measures outweigh qualitative judgments. This is so politicians can’t whitewash learning deficiencies.

A case in point is New York City where student achievement is merely one of seven criteria used to rate schools. The others are rigorous instruction, collaborative teachers, supportive environment, effective school leadership, strong family-communities ties and “trust”—all subjective matters that are easily gamed. Most of the 200 elementary and middle schools in which fewer than 10% of students pass state tests get good ratings, which hide the disparities between high-achieving charters and low-performing traditional schools.

States would also have to draft plans to rehabilitate their lowest-performing 5% of schools as well as those in which any group of students (e.g., low-income, special needs) consistently underperforms. In return, the bill would give states more funding flexibility by consolidating nearly 50 categorical grants for programs like physical education and Advanced Placement classes.

One disappointment is that the bill keeps “maintenance of effort” rules for state spending that can discourage efficiencies and labor reforms. There’s also no portability for Title I funds, which are designated for low-income students but flow to local public schools. Failing schools that lose kids to charters shouldn’t be rewarded by pocketing federal cash for the fleeing students. But there’s currently not enough support for voucherizing Title I funds in the Senate to overcome a Democratic filibuster.

Federal education spending would hew to the new budget caps, which upsets conservatives who correctly note that more money won’t improve learning. Between 2003 and 2013 total education expenditures rose by a third to $10,700 per pupil. But students in states that spend less like Florida ($8,647) and Tennessee ($8,208) have made bigger gains than kids in higher-spending one like New York ($19,818). Yet President Obama and Democrats would like to exceed the budget caps, so this spending restraint should be embraced.

The bill isn’t the complete devolution of power that conservatives would prefer, but it would help state reformers who want to do better. Since 2011 Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin have enacted voucher programs. Florida, Tennessee and North Carolina have limited teacher tenure. Nevada this year established universal education savings accounts, which allow all parents to spend state funds on private school tuition, textbooks, tutoring and special services.

Republicans will have more chances to reform Washington’s role in education if they keep their majority, and this ESEA reauthorization expires in four years. They shouldn’t let their ideal of American federalism thwart a rare opportunity for real reform.

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