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No Child Left Behind Act of (2001)

The Original ESEA, The New Act

On January 8, 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act. This act was a congressional reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) and is also known technically as Public Law 107-87.

In April 1965, almost thirty-seven years prior to the enactment of Public Law 107-87, the 89th Congress and President Lyndon Baines Johnson had overseen enactment of the original ESEA (Pub. L. 89-10). This federal government statue proved enormously important for American education. It also proved enormously difficult to implement and manage. The nature and complexity of the No Child Left Behind Act suggests that it too will be both equally important and equally challenging to those charged with overseeing its operation.

The Original ESEA

The significance of the original ESEA resided in its emphasis on the schooling of students from low-income households. The ESEA, through a remarkably creative financing formula, distributed federal funds to states, and thence to counties and school districts, proportionate to the number of enrolled students from low-income households. By the turn of the twenty-first century, this act was responsible for distributing more than $13 billion each school year to public and, through a few minimal provisions, private and religious K–12 schools. The act also supplied substantial financial subsidies for the operation of state education departments.

Prior to 1965, not only did the federal government have only the most minimal presence in education, education also had only a minimal presence in the lives of low-income students. These were children who had legal access to public schooling. But public schooling had few mechanisms, other than the dedication of certain teachers and principals, for educating them. Low-income students were permitted to stay in school, often being promoted from one grade to the next. Prior to the ESEA, however, there were few expectations that schools would expend on their behalf the added resources that might be necessary to compensate for the poverty-impacted nature of their neighborhoods and households. The ESEA was, if nothing else, a powerful symbolic message that even poor children were to be schooled.

Administration of the ESEA proved challenging. School districts frequently did not realize that the added federal funding was intended for low-income children. They accepted the money as "general financial aid," suitable for whatever purpose they chose to spend it. Congressional amendments in 1968 made the statute's purposes more clear. Nevertheless, these new regulations were so strict that it became equally clear that the federally funded poverty programs, however much needed, were intruding deeply into the operation of schools. The narrowly focused instructional programs they financed were at best wasteful and possibly counterproductive to the education of children.

By the mid-1990s, Congress undertook another midcourse correction and began to permit schools to deploy the ESEA funds with greater local discretion. Still, by 1998, a General Accounting Office report suggested that only fifteen states were adequately implementing the ESEA. This was more than three decades after its enactment.

The New Act

The No Child Left Behind Act promises to be as important as the original ESEA not only because of the added federal funding it authorizes for education but also because of the pathbreaking measures required of states accepting the money.

The new ESEA is also symbolic of a major shift in American education. Until the latter part of the twentieth century, it was generally sufficient simply to offer schooling and to ensure that all children had equal access to it. By the turn of the twenty-first century, however, global economic changes had so altered that societal landscape that Americans were expecting far more of their education systems. Now, simple access was no longer sufficient. Learning was coming to be expected–and not simply learning for the slender elite that for more than a century had graduated from privileged public and private schools and attended the nation's highest-ranking universities. Now learning was expected of all children, and performance was expected of all schools. The No Child Left Behind Act is filled with accountability provisions to ensure that states and participating schools understand the new expectations.

The No Child Left Behind Act is symbolic of the transition in American education from a period where the main concern was that the inputs of schooling be present to a period where it is the outcomes of schooling that matter. To accomplish this new purpose–to render schools effective–the reauthorized ESEA provides added funding to school districts, through states. In addition, it requires that states have learning standards and testing programs capable of assessing each child's performance in achieving those standards. The accountability mechanisms in the statute provide for negative sanctions to schools and districts that persistently fail to elevate student achievement.

However important practically, financially, or symbolically, the No Child Left Behind Act will doubtless prove difficult to implement. The statutory language offers only the most rudimentary solutions to a number of issues and questions, such as the comparability of testing forms across states, or whether improvement in student achievement is sufficient or must a school attain absolute standards of achievement to be approved.

In that the original ESEA was not fully understood nor faultlessly managed even three decades after its enactment, it is unlikely that the 2002-enacted version, which if anything is even more complicated, will achieve success at a faster pace.


U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION. 2002. No Child Left Behind. <www.nochildleftbehind.gov>.


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