Arlington, Va. — The No Child Left Behind Act represents a radical departure from Washington's prior K-12 education laws: For the first time, it ties federal dollars to achieving academic results. It also seeks to give parents options when their children are poorly served by schools receiving federal aid designed to close an achievement gap defined so long by race and poverty.
So it is not surprising that the law has ignited controversy in its first two years, as parents, educators and elected officials discover that their schools might not measure up.
And while disappointing, it also comes as little surprise that the loudest objections to No Child Left Behind emanate from the 2.7 million-member teacher union, the National Education Assn., and its allies.
After all, with its increased accountability for results, the law doesn't bring any added job security for those union members who year after year can't quite get the job done.
With the law has come unprecedented spending increases: Federal K-12 spending has risen by $11 billion in the last three years. In addition, the nonpartisan General Accounting Office recently concluded that the states already are receiving federal aid adequate to cover the stepped-up NCLB achievement testing.
Nevertheless, Democrats and Republicans likely will squabble forever as to the optimum federal share. What's important is that the consensus holds on demanding results and giving children escape routes from failing schools.
Annual testing of pupils in grades 3-8 on reading and math is the core NCLB requirement. In a nod to federalism, the law allows states to choose their own tests and set their own passing marks. Nevertheless, critics decry the emphasis on standardized tests. They assert that tests do not measure "critical thinking" or such virtues as "tolerance."
That's true, but without measurement, there would be no way to monitor students' acquisition of foundational knowledge and skills.
In their new book, "No Excuses," Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom document the shocking reality that by age 17 the average black or Hispanic student is scoring lower than 80 percent of his white classmates.
Unlike prior versions of federal education law, NCLB requires that schools report achievement data by subgroups -- and not just according to race, ethnicity and income level but also disability and English fluency.
What so empurples many school officials is that NCLB requires annual improvement for students in each of these subgroups, or else even a highly regarded suburban school will be rated in need of improvement.
That's as it should be, because modern education too often has given students a label instead of teaching them to read and has shunted immigrant children to the linguistic ghetto of bilingual education instead of promptly teaching them English.
The education establishment also resents NCLB giving needy parents a right to public-school choice or private tutors when their children are being poorly served.
Such recalcitrance is no reason to scrap NCLB. It is instead a reason to bolster it, thereby improving the quality of our public schools.
Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, www.lexingtoninstitute.org.