FOLKS OVER AT the National Education Association headquarters are gloating. "Clearly, the ground on [No Child Left Behind] has shifted," said a statement released by the national teachers' union last week. "While publicly castigating NEA for what he called 'obstructionist scare tactics,' U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige is beginning to follow suggestions from the Association."

From the day it became law--January 8, 2002--Bush's education initiative promised trouble. Senator Edward Kennedy and Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, stood by, beaming with semi-forced smiles, while Bush signed the bipartisan bill. "The White House was eager to have George W. Bush and Sandra Feldman embrace," says a Kennedy spokesman, "and they did." But the NEAwas already rumbling its disapproval, and a short three weeks later, the odd couple's honeymoon was over.

Which, when you think about it, isn't the least bit surprising. The NEA, along with its political action committee, had donated $2.8 million to Democrats in the last presidential election cycle. The group has never endorsed a Republican for president.

And there's a lot to fight about. More than 1,000 pages long, No Child Left Behind lays out a scheme for educational improvement with a 12-year horizon. As a result, it's impossible to tell yet whether or not it is succeeding. When today's first-graders graduate, we'll know whether it worked. But the law's numerous testing requirements, tight compliance deadlines, and consequences for schools that fail to measure up--extra tutoring, then vouchers, then "reorganization"--are making beneficiaries of the status quo nervous even before many of the requirements kick in.

So the critics are agitating for modifications, and they've had some help from Secretary Paige. On February 23, Paige called the NEA a "terrorist organization," a choice of words he later conceded was "inappropriate" and for which he was "truly sorry." Still, insisted Paige, the "NEA's high-priced Washington lobbyists have made no secret that they will fight against bringing real, rock-solid improvements in the way we educate all our children."

Strong words. But they were immediately undercut when Paige and assistant secretary Raymond Simon began announcing a series of rewrites of the more controversial provisions of the No Child Left Behind law--each of which brought the legislation into line with an NEA demand.

The most recent alteration--the one that occasioned the triumphant press release quoted above--was a revision of the "highly qualified teacher" rule, which requires teachers to have a bachelor's degree or the equivalent in every subject they teach. New teachers at rural schools will be given an extra three years to comply, and current teachers will have until March 2007. Teachers who cover multiple subjects are also given a break. The requirements were hardly excessive to begin with--there were several options for alternative certification for experienced teachers--but they are now more "flexible," says Paige.

Faced with complaints that the "highly qualified teacher" rule was unduly burdensome, Bush's Department of Education was in a classic "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. Kennedy, for one, has consistently lauded the provision as among the best features of No Child Left Behind. Now he will be able to say that the administration has gone soft on even the law's most basic components.

But the teachers' union hated the provision--it threatened their own--and now that it has been successfully dispatched, they can claim sway over the administration, and boast of a conquest that will stiffen their future demands.

After taking credit for Paige's other recent decisions to relax regulations governing the treatment of special-education students and non-native English speakers in compliance deadlines, the NEA's statement sets to work lobbying for future reforms: "Of course, much more needs to be done," it goes on, and then outlines a four-point plan for future changes, studded with the words "flexibility," "out-dated," and "workable."

Michelangelo is famously reported to have said that a good block of marble has a sculpture inside it, waiting to be revealed. The NEA seems convinced that inside No Child Left Behind lurk the same old federal-aid-to-education programs they're used to, but with more money attached. All that Bush's critics in the education establishment have to do is chip away at the special features of his plan until there's nothing left but the status quo underneath.

In fact, several leading Democrats reportedly voted for No Child Left Behind only after expressing the belief that the accountability provisions would go the way of the dodo, as did similar aspects of comprehensive school reform, national board certification, and other bygone waves of high-minded innovation, while the money would keep flowing.

But just how far below the surface does the status quo lie? Is No Child Left Behind really just a reauthorization of preexisting federal education programs, with tougher rhetoric, a few more tests, and a lot more cash?

SENATOR John Kerry was among the 47 Democratic senators who voted for No Child Left Behind. But today he regularly elicits raucous applause from sympathetic crowds by bashing it--and Bush. "By signing the No Child Left Behind Act and then breaking his promise by not giving schools the resources to help meet new standards," says Kerry, "George Bush has undermined public education." Kerry denounces the law as an "unfunded mandate," echoing the battle cry taken up by his colleague from Massachusetts, Kennedy, just a little over three weeks after both of them voted for the bill.

Since the "unfunded mandate" argument is the most common criticism lobbed at Bush, it deserves a closer look. An unfunded mandate is a requirement from Washington that the states do something--a requirement not accompanied by funding from Washington to pay for it.

Fact: Federal spending on elementary and secondary education in the category known as Title I has increased by 41 percent since 2001, bringing overall federal education spending to more than $35 billion. This is not, by itself, evidence that the Bush reforms are fully funded. It could be that No Child Left Behind costs, say, 43 percent more than existing federal requirements and therefore leaves states to go begging. But the additional nearly $9billion Bush has poured into the system suggests that he is not starving the public schools in an "unprecedented manner," as has been alleged. When Kerry and Kennedy brandish the word "unfunded," you can be sure that what's happening is a sleight of hand.

It turns out to be the same sleight of hand that has been used for the last 40 years--ever since the invention of the "federal education initiative." Here's how it works: There's a certain amount of education spending already on the books. The president comes along with a series of reforms, some of which will make old programs redundant. When the next budget comes out, it shows funding for those old programs "slashed," as opponents invariably complain. Of course, the reason is that the old program wasn't working. But that's tough to explain when someone is asking why a particular literacy program for rural schools has to go.

Look, for example, at how the NEA explains its highly publicized claim that the Bush administration has "left behind 3.8 million English language learners": "Full funding estimate is based on restoring the peak level of support per limited-English-proficient student as was funded under the antecedent program." Rather than calculating how much the stated goals of No Child Left Behind would cost, and then subtracting from allocated funds to discover if there is a shortfall, the NEA works backwards. Starting with the maximum amount ever allotted to particular English instruction programs, the NEA figures out how many hypothetical immigrants that old hypothetical level of funding would cover, and then publicizes the resulting figure regardless of the situation in actual classrooms.

One person with little patience for the "unfunded mandate" claim is Raymond Simon, the man in charge of implementing No Child Left Behind at the Education Department. In the nearly four decades he has been involved with public education, he told the Washington Post, "nobody has ever had enough money. When I was a school superintendent, the principals always wanted more money. When I was director of education for the state of Arkansas, the superintendents always wanted more money."

Bush would do well to take a page out of Simon's book when he faces Kerry in debate. As long as Bush accepts the NEA's premise that insufficient funding causes sub-par academic performance, Kerry (and Democrats) will retain the high ground on education, because they will always be willing to say they will spend more.

The allegation that No Child Left Behind is an unfunded mandate is total nonsense, says Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. "Achieving proficiency might be expensive," Finn concedes, "but the actual activities mandated in NCLB are fully funded. At this point those activities are almost entirely testing."

WHICH BRINGS US to the second most common objection to No Child Left Behind. The law requires more tests than any previous effort to improve education. And, more controversially, it applies stricter controls to the way the tests are administered, and how the data obtained are processed.

No Child Left Behind requires annual testing for math and reading in grades 3 through 8, and one more round of testing in grade 10, 11, or 12. In 2007, states will have to add science tests at three grade levels. Thus, the Bush reform requires 17 tests over the course of a public education where previous federal law required only 6. That might seem like a lot of tests, but when No Child Left Behind went into effect, five states already met or exceeded this requirement.

According to the General Accounting Office, states will have to add, on average, eight or nine tests to their existing programs, for an additional cost of about $442 million in 2003, or roughly $9 per student. But this number, write James Peyser and Robert Costrell in Education NEXT magazine, includes tests that were required under previous law but never implemented. The Bush reforms alone will account for fewer than half the total new tests. The Department of Education's current appropriation for state assessments is $391 million--in addition to funding for half the tests already required but not implemented.

But Kennedy and Kerry don't complain primarily about the costs of testing. Instead, they fret that current education spending is not adequate to cover the costs of instruction. Though the federal government is only a bit player in the financing of education--it has never covered more than 8 percent of the cost of K-12 education, the rest being provided by the states and localities--Kennedy is concerned that if "valuable class time will be taken up teaching to the test," Uncle Sam owes the states more. While it is hard to see how "teaching to the test" detracts from class time if the ability to read and do math is what is being tested, this complaint has long been an NEA staple, and isn't likely to vanish, even under the force of logic.

William J. Mathis, a school superintendent and education finance professor in Vermont, reviewed cost estimates drawn up by 18 states and reported in the Phi Delta Kappan that public spending needs to increase between 20 percent and 35 percent to meet the goals of No Child Left Behind, an extra $85 billion to $150 billion a year.

Mathis's numbers have gained currency in the debate. But many education experts question his conclusions, citing the lack of correlation between spending and educational achievement. They point to, among dozens of other examples, the District of Columbia public schools, which spend more than $13,000 per child (the national average is just under $8,000), yet consistently show among the lowest scores in the country. As Rick Hess, education analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, puts it: "If we are spending more than $300,000 to educate a classroom full of kids, and still not getting results, the problem is not that there is too little money. We should certainly be able to educate 30 kids for that amount." And many schools do.

Still, two-thirds of fourth graders cannot read at grade level, and 88 percent of African-American and 85 percent of Hispanic students can't read proficiently, according to figures from the National Assessment of Educational Progress analyzed by Lewis Solomon, an economist at the Milken Family Foundation.

In the end, though, no amount of testing will make a difference if the results of the tests aren't used to hold someone accountable for failure. And the administration, says Finn, has "no stomach" for punishing individuals.

The administration has, however, opened the door to accountability with the "sunshine provisions" of No Child Left Behind. These are the law's biggest innovations: the requirement that testing data be broken down by subgroup within each school's population, and that every group of students demonstrate proficiency.

In the past the smallest data unit was the school. Now, test results are broken down by sex, race, income, limited English proficiency, and special-education status. In order to meet the law's requirements and avoid a "needs improvement" label (No Child Left Behind does not use the label "failing school"), each subgroup must show proficiency in reading and math, or make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) toward that goal.

In this sense, No Child Left Behind is a blunt instrument: A school where only a single subgroup--say, the non-native speakers of English--is failing to reach proficiency is lumped under the heading "needs improvement" alongside a school where 18 out of 20 subgroups of students are failing.

What's more, a few schools have received "needs improvement" ratings solely because of attendance. A provision requiring that at least 95 percent of every subgroup be present on testing day was included in the law to make sure that schools didn't encourage underperformers to skip the test. Since schools don't even begin to feel consequences until they have failed for at least two years in a row, a fluke year should cause no trouble. Nonetheless, officials at Langley High School in prosperous Fairfax County, Virginia, for example, grumbled when they were told they needed improvement after attendance shortfalls among the relatively small minority population of the school showed up in their test results.

But these are precisely the provisions that justify the sappy name of the law: No Child Left Behind. Not No School Left Behind, or No Teacher Left Behind (though the NEA did issue a release announcing that "15,000 teachers have been left behind"). By looking more closely at subgroups of kids for the first time, the Bush reform gets to the heart of the matter--student performance.

WHEN BUSH'S NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND gathered steam in the fall of 2001, something miraculous happened. For the first time ever, Republicans outpolled the Democrats on education. For one shining moment, Bush was the education president. He was reading to school children, remember, when he heard about the attacks on September 11.

But when "state and local districts started feeling the pinch" of the No Child Left Behind requirements, says Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senator Kennedy, Bush's ratings went down. And since the tutoring, voucher, and "reorganization" components won't take effect until next year at the earliest for most schools, that left plenty of time for stories to appear in the media about schools, like Langley, that had always done well on state assessments but were suddenly failing to meet the new Bush standards. A headline last week read: "Montana's Top Teacher Not Good Enough" after that state's Teacher of the Year failed to meet the "highly qualified" standard in biology, chemistry, and physics--all of which he teaches to middle schoolers.

Secretary Paige has said that he is considering further changes to the requirement that schools have 95 percent attendance on test day, and he has hinted at other modifications to come. Taken individually, these may be sensible tweaks to an enormously complicated law. But taken together, they could signal that Bush has decided to stand down and move into damage-control mode.

Even as the NEA crows over its successes in press releases and letters to the editor, other education advocacy groups, typically those representing racial minorities and kids with disabilities, lament that No Child Left Behind shows signs of going the way of previous education initiatives--lots of money spent for feeble results and less accountability.

Nevertheless, Bush should be on a strong footing when he is questioned about funding and accountability. His administration's huge increases in education spending should dispel Kerry's "unfunded mandate" charge. And, if the president gets the urge to be a real revolutionary, he can have a go at explaining that the problem isn't a lack of spending on schools.

As for objections to the new, more stringent testing requirements, all Bush has to do is look Kerry in the eye and ask: "So, just how many Hispanic fourth graders don't need to learn to read proficiently?"

It is too soon to know whether No Child Left Behind will eventually cause any more kids to learn how to read. But it does reveal who is learning and who isn't, and it places kids who fall behind on track to receive extra help. These are valuable achievements Bush can claim when he faces Kerry--if he doesn't oblige the NEA with any further retreat.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.

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