The No Child Left Behind education law was cast as a symbol of possibility, offering the promise of improved schools for the nation’s poor and minority children and better prepared students in a competitive world.
Yet after a decade on the books, President George W. Bush’s most hyped domestic accomplishment has become a symbol to many of federal overreach and Congress’ inability to fix something that’s clearly flawed.
The law forced schools to confront the uncomfortable reality that many kids simply weren’t learning, but it’s primarily known for its emphasis on standardized tests and the labeling of thousands of schools as “failures.”
Sunday marks the 10-year anniversary of the day Bush signed it into law in Hamilton, Ohio. By his side were the leaders of the education committees in Congress, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. The bipartisanship that made the achievement possible in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks is long gone.
The same Senate committee approved a revamped education bill last year, but deep-rooted partisanship stalled the measure in the full Congress. In this election year, there appears little political will for compromise despite widespread agreement that changes are needed.
Critics say the law carries rigid and unrealistic expectations that put too much of an emphasis on tests for reading and math at the expense of a more well-rounded education.
Frustrated by the congressional inaction, President Barack Obama told states last fall they could seek a waiver around unpopular proficiency requirements in exchange for actions his administration favors. A vast majority of states have said they will go that route, seen as a temporary fix until lawmakers do act.
Like Obama, Republican presidential candidates have criticized the law. One, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, even saying he regrets voting for it.
“If you called a rally to keep No Child Left Behind as it is, not a single person would show up,” said Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Denver’s former school superintendent.
The view was drastically different 10 years ago, when Bush took what was an uncommon stance for a conservative in seeking an aggressive federal role in forcing states and districts to tackle abysmal achievement gaps in schools.