John Cornyn

One of the Bush Administration’s landmark legislative achievements, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), recently observed its fifth birthday. The law expires and must be renewed by 2008.

No Child Left Behind is built on the most worthy premise imaginable—that every child in America deserves the opportunity to receive a quality education, in order to fulfill his God-given potential. There are no critics of the law’s goal: standards, accountability and superior schools.

But the path to that goal is filled with disagreement. The law was controversial in 2001, and it’s controversial now. Its final form was the result of numerous compromises. That’s what happens when trying to impose a national solution on a part of government—our K-12 education system—that should be controlled at the local level.

The bill has increased markedly federal spending on K-12 education, from $23.1 billion in 2001 to $38.7 billion in 2006. In Texas, federal funding for the NCLB programs went from $1.2 billion in 2001 to almost $2 billion in 2006.

Much of this federal aid is allocated for specific programs, and is accompanied by detailed instructions on how it must be spent and onerous burdens on schools to justify their funding. Because there are numerous federal mandates that accompany this federal largesse, this ‘free’ money does come at a cost.

In Florida, for instance, more than 40 percent of the state’s education department staff is devoted to administration and oversight of federal aid dollars as they move from Washington to local school districts. Nationally, according to the Office of Management and Budget, state and local education employees logged 6.7 million additional hours of work on NCLB-related reporting requirements.

Texas provides a good example of some unintended results. Under the leadership of then-Governor George W. Bush, Texas became one of the first states to establish a standards-based system.

Unfortunately, the 2001 law is often unfairly applied to judge students in each state. While it requires all students to attain a minimum ‘proficiency’ level in math and reading by 2014, it unfairly penalizes states that aim higher. This creates a situation in which some states dilute their testing measures in order to meet proficiency requirements, while others, like Texas, set high standards and are then punished with poor proficiency ratings.