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Criticism of No Child Left Behind

Numerous vocal critics oppose No Child Left Behind. Criticism of NCLBA typically falls into three different categories. First, as with ESEA, critics charge that NCLBA causes the federal government to intrude too much into what has traditionally been the domain of the states. Second, opponents contend that NCLBA has resulted in unfunded federal mandates, which essentially passes financial problems from the federal government to state and local governments. Finally, detractors allege that the law places too much emphasis on standardized testing and stringent teacher qualifications.

Speaking on behalf of its members, the National Education Association (NEA) is an outspoken opponent of the law. The NEA argues that NCLBA requires stringent accountability, but does not provide adequate funding necessary for schools to meet those requirements. The NEA also claims that NCLBA punishes schools rather than providing assistance, and that it promotes privatization of education.

Education as Domain of the States; NCLBA as an Unfunded Federal Mandate

The United States Constitution strikes a balance between powers reserved for the federal government, and those given to the states. The Tenth Amendment provides, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." The Supreme Court has established in rulings that the Constitution does not implicitly or explicitly delegate education matters to the federal government. In fact, in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case from 1954, the Supreme Court recognized, "Education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments." Nevertheless, the federal government has often involved itself in education policies without running afoul of the Constitution.

Congress is able to enact legislation over education because of another constitutional provision, the spending clause in Art. I, sec. 8, clause 1: "The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States…." Under the spending clause, if federal funds are merely an inducement to meet certain conditions, the federal government may intrude on an area normally reserved to the states.

The Supreme Court has held that Congress must meet certain requirements where it relies on the spending clause to enact legislation over which it has no specific authority. Such legislation must:

  • Not be prohibited by other constitutional provisions
  • Be in pursuit of the "general welfare"
  • Be related to the federal interest in particular national projects or programs
  • Be unambiguous in describing the conditions for the states' receipt of federal funds, to enable states to knowingly decide to participate or not

No Child Left Behind Act criticism comes from critics who charge that the law is unclear in describing what states must do to receive federal funds. Critics support this contention by referring to the Department of Education's massive efforts to clarify the act, as evidenced by regulations, guidance documents, and letters and other communication to various state and local officials.

Often related to the criticism that the federal government is interfering with the traditional domain of the states, some critics contend that No Child Left Behind has resulted in billions of dollars of unfunded mandates. In other words, the Congress has failed to provide the funding states need to meet mandates in the law. Supporters of the law argue that NCLBA does not present an unfunded mandate, because states are not required to adopt the federal program.

Emphasis on Standardized Testing

One recurring No Child Left Behind Act Criticism is that it forces teachers to "teach to the test" in order to get students to pass standardized tests. These critics say that a consequence of teaching to the test is that teacher creativity and student learning are stifled. Moreover, critics charge that it is unrealistic to expect learning disabled students and non-English speaking students to pass the test. Another criticism related to testing is that the law often leads to anomalous results.

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