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Taming the Beast

Taming the Beast

William Mathis, a superintendent of schools in Brandon, Vt., and a professor of education finance at the University of Vermont, has tracked the various claims about NCLB funding (see Education Week , April 21). He examined estimates in 20 states that used a wide variety of methods to calculate the school services, remedial programs, and other expenditures needed to approach universal passing rates on state tests. These studies indicate that it would take about a 30 percent annual increase in current school spending for states to come close to meeting NCLB's goals-even on its own narrow test-score terms. That's about $130 billion a year, or almost 10 times what current funding is for Title I programs. To date, the much-touted increase in federal spending accompanying NCLB represents about a one percent increase in total U.S. school spending.

This yawning gulf between current levels of NCLB funding and what it might actually cost in test-driven educational programs and services to close the test-score gap has left NCLB supporters with a credibility gap of their own. Lately, some NCLB defenders have taken to filling it with the argument that NCLB is, in fact, not underfunded at all, but is fully funded in the only area that really matters-developing and imposing the mandated "accountability" system of tests and standards.

In the March 17 issue of Education Week, two prominent Harvard academics, Paul E. Peterson and Martin R. West, argue that "The No Child Left Behind law is, intrinsically, an inexpensive school reform, a plan to get more bang from existing bucks, not a high-priced mandate." They argue that the heart of NCLB and the true measure of federal responsibility is the "accountability" system that holds schools responsible for meeting the new mandates-not the actual education programs and services required to reach them. Since developing standards and tests is relatively cheap compared to real educational programs or real school improvement efforts, West and Peterson assert that there is more than enough money for schools to do as NCLB commands. Citing studies that put the median cost of testing at about $15 per student, they conclude "the true costs of the No Child Left Behind act are no more than 0.2 percent of the total cost of public schooling. Would that all unfunded mandates were so cheap!"

Scant Evidence

According to this line of reasoning, as long as the federal government funds the development and imposition of the tests, NCLB is fully funded-even "overfunded" in many respects. Beyond that, it's up to the states and local districts to redirect existing educational spending and programs to meet NCLB's standards and test-driven targets. As for the need for more funds? "If money could solve the educational problem, it would by now be behind us," the Harvard scholars write. "Unfortunately, there is scant evidence that, in the absence of market competition, more money makes for better schools. . . . Clearly, money is not the missing ingredient that has kept students from reaching the proficiency levels that the No Child Left Behind law insists upon."

On one level, this argument is absurd. No state has ever reached "the proficiency levels that the No Child Left Behind law insists upon" and mandating it won't make it so. To expect schools to wipe out long-standing academic achievement gaps while denying them substantial new resources and leaving many of the social factors that contribute to this inequality in place is not an "accountability" system. It's a politically designed setup.

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