In the Spotlight

News & Features
Go to A Lesson on Learning: Behind No Child Left Behind
DocumentA Lesson on Learning: Behind No Child Left Behind
DocumentHow the role of the federal government is growing in local schools
DocumentHow teachers are affected by the rule
DocumentSchools testing burden grows
DocumentNo school left untouched
DocumentThe role of parents
DocumentWhat's your opinion?
Your Voice
DocumentJoin the conversation with other MPR listeners in the News Forum.

DocumentE-mail this pageDocumentPrint this page
Federal role grows in local schools
Larger view
U.S. Education Secretary Paige says the federal government wants a to see improved student achievement in every state as a return on its investment. (U.S. Dept. of Education Photo)
The federal government has expanded its role in public schools by making unprecedented demands for raising student achievement. More than a year ago, President Bush signed into law sweeping changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The so-called "No Child Left Behind" law requires all states and local school districts to follow strict rules on student testing, teacher training and accountability. Supporters say the law ensures much needed school reform. But critics claim it's a threat to local decision making.

St. Paul, Minn. — When President Bush signed the "No Child Left Behind" act into law in January 2002, he dramatically increased federal involvement in the way states and school districts do their jobs. The original Elementary and Secondary Education Act, signed in 1965, began the commitment of federal money to schools to help poor children get a good education and escape poverty. U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige says billions of dollars were spent over the years with no expectations for classroom results.

"No idea in politics has hurt children more than the false and misleading assumption that spending alone determines how well children learn." Paige said.

No Child Left Behind increased federal education spending, but the money comes with lots of strings attached. The new rules require all states to adopt specific testing and accountability systems. Under-achieving schools that receive federal Title I money must make progress toward meeting state standards or allow students to move to other schools. Persistently failing schools could face state takeover. The law also requires states to raise the qualifications for teachers and classroom assistants.

Paige says the federal government wants to see improved student achievement in every state as a return on its investment.

"We don't tell the states what standards they should set for their students and their state," Paige said. "We simply say set standards. The states will determine what standards will be. Then we say measure against those standards to determine whether the standard is being reached or not. And that would not be in any reasonable person's mind the federal government meddling in states' business."

But federal meddling is exactly how many local school leaders describe the law. They object to what they see as inappropriate intrusion into their decision-making.

Larger view
Image Audrey Johnson, Minneapolis school board

Minneapolis school board member Audrey Johnson criticized the new federal requirements during a recent public hearing on district budget cuts.

"This is a federal bill that has encroached upon local issues more than any other bill in educational history," Johnson said.

Johnson agrees with the basic concept of No Child Left Behind, and it's goal to close the achievement gaps between students of color and their white classmates. She says she also wants to see all students succeed in the classroom. What she doesn't want is micro-managing from Washington.

"The federal government I feel has a role to play, and that's where they set certain parameters, and they have to look at the bigger picture and the outcomes and say the state needs to have plan to include all these kids," Johnson said. "And allow the states the flexibility, because it's really a state constitutional responsibility is education. It's not a federal one. That's one that's clearly left to the states."

Larger view
Image Morgan Brown, Center of the American Experiment

Conservatives are also questioning the reach of No Child Left Behind and how it fits into their "less government" view of the world. Morgan Brown, a senior fellow with the Center of the American Experiment, says he supports the new federal mandates with some reservations.

"From a conservative perspective, ideally you should have policymaking and funding at the state and local levels exclusively," Brown said. "But we have reached a consensus in this country that that's not going to happen anytime soon. We're going to have some level of federal involvement in K-12 education. So, if we're going to do that, then let's move towards providing the funding to the states but holding them accountable for the results."

Brown is a big proponent of parental choice in education. He says he's disappointed the law didn't contain more options, such as private school vouchers. Some critics claim the whole approach of No Child Left Behind is aimed at setting the stage for vouchers by discrediting public schools. Thousands of schools could quickly fall short of the performance targets and be placed on the "needs improvement" list. Each student subgroup, including English Language Learners and special education, must also make improvements. The law requires all students to meet proficiency standards in 12 years.

Edina Superintendent Ken Dragseth, the recently named national superintendent of the year, says even top performing schools like his will be labeled as failures. He says 90 percent passing rates on tests are no longer good enough.

Larger view
Image Edina Superintendent Ken Dragseth

"At some year, I'm a failing school," Dragseth said. "Might be the first year. Might be the sixth year. But I'm not going to get all my kids to 100 percent. As much as I want to, as much as we love those kids and as hard as those teachers are working, there is no way that we're going to get them to 100 percent."

Education Secretary Paige is unapologetic about the tough accountability provisions of No Child Left Behind, including the need for a list of underperforming schools.

"The reason to identify schools as in need of improvement is so that we can improve the school," Paige said. "It doesn't mean the school is to be punished, or that the school is a bad school. It's a school that needs help. And whether or not we identify that school as one that needs help, the school still needs help."

The only option for state officials, if they feel the regulations are too restrictive, is give up millions of dollars in federal money for underprivileged students. Minnesota, for example, receives about $250 million in Title I funds. But some wonder if three percent of the state's total K-12 education budget is worth a mandate of 100 percent accountability.

Renee Doyle, founder of the Maple River Education Coalition, has spent the past five years fighting to scrap the state's Profile of Learning graduation standards and preserve local control of education. Doyle opposed previous federal education initiatives, such as Goals 2000. And she doesn't like No Child Left Behind.

"The teeth have been put in it, it's more stringent, and yes we highly object to what they're doing to the schools," Doyle said. "It's totally something that's such a huge, cumbersome thing that they will not be able to even operate under."

Rep. Alice Seagren, R-Bloomington, chairwoman of the House Education Finance Committee, also has concerns about the federal mandates. But she says when lawmakers are struggling to solve a more than four billion dollar state budget deficit, giving up any federal funding is not an option.

"If you just look at the initial numbers of Title I of $250 million, that might have been doable if we had had a surplus or something, if people were really concerned about this federal mandate," Seagren said. "We have no money to cover that kind of impact, so I don't think it's realistic that we walk away from these federal dollars."

Seagren says she hopes instead that lawmakers and state education officials can develop a workable testing and accountability system for Minnesota that is palatable to teachers and parents.

Respond to this story
News Headlines
Related Subjects