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Expansion of Federal Power in American Education: Federal-State Relationships Under the No Child Left Behind Act, Year One

Authors: Gail L. Sunderman, Jimmy Kim, Gary Orfield
Date Published: February 01, 2004

The No Child Left Behind Act is a startling departure from this history, both in terms of its requirements and in terms of its sponsors. It requires specific large changes in the basic assessment systems of states, sets requirements for education progress in two specific subjects only, contains unusual and large sanctions, and commands many forms of specific state action. It clearly moves to the very heart of the educational process. When the fate of schools and faculties rests solely on achieving a nationally specified rate of progress on two tests, those tests will drive curriculum and instruction in the schools that are clearly at risk, and, in this way, the federal mandates will control the center of the educational process.
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February 2004

Expansion of Federal Power in  American Education:Federal-State Relationships Under the  No Child Left Behind Act, Year One
By Gail L. Sunderman and Jimmy Kim

Foreword by Gary Orfield


The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) alters federal-state relations by expanding the federal role further into a primary function of state and local governments and raises questions about how federal, state, and local policies interact—that is, conflict or reinforce each other.  Early indications suggest that states are differently positioned to assume the additional responsibilities required under NCLB.  While there has been some intergovernmental collaboration and cooperation, the ambitious expectations, strict timelines, and exacting set of regulations combined with the fiscal constraints operating on states imposed significant burdens on state and local implementation.  It is our perspective that NCLB is testing the limits of the federal system with a fundamentally different model—one that assumes that by centralizing rules and educational policy, institutions and practice can be rapidly changed to accommodate new requirements.   

Our research on the status of federal-state relationships during the first year indicates that many of the conditions that would facilitate implementation of NCLB are not there.  In particular:

  • States have limited administrative capacity and technical expertise needed to implement the NCLB requirements.  While states differ in their capacity to meet the new requirements, the technical challenges of implementing a test-based accountability system exceed the capacity of many states. We found that, contrary to the Bush administration’s claim that all states were in compliance with NCLB, only 11 states actually had accountability plans that were fully approved by the U.S. Department of Education in June 2003.  States that were not in compliance with the 1994 Improving American’s Schools Act, the less intrusive predecessor to NCLB, had a more difficult time meeting the new requirements than those states that had complied with the earlier law.  Those parts of the law that required difficult technical decisions, such as developing a method to determine adequate yearly progress and building a reliable and valid testing system, were the most difficult for states to meet.  While our findings suggestgeneral support for accountability, support for a test-based accountability system is more limited.  


  • State budget shortfalls threaten to erode state commitment to the law and complicate implementation efforts.  All fifty states are faced with severe budget shortages that resulted in cuts to education and strained the capacity of state departments of education to meet the early requirements of the law.  While states are just beginning to sort out what it will cost to implement NCLB and how this balances out against the available resources, evidence is mounting that the costs vastly exceed the additional revenues that states received from the federal government.  The law gives states some money to meet the testing requirements, but none to meet the additional administrative costs of implementing other requirements.  As states move into the second year of implementation when they will be required to offer intervention services to an increasing number of schools identified for improvement, the costs of meeting additional staffing requirements are likely to further strain the capacity of most state education departments.

  • Political support for the law is eroding across all levels of state and local government and the educational system as political leaders and professional educators begin to understand how the law’s provisions affect state and local priorities.  Party alliance has not guaranteed cooperation with the federal goals, especially when they conflicted with local priorities and interfered with local control of education.  District officials and local educators, who must implement the new requirements, were increasingly vocal about their objections to NCLB.  Educators considered many of the NCLB provisions arbitrary and unfair, particularly the adequate yearly progress designations and testing requirements for special education students and English language learners.  


  • The federal administration has done little that would ease the burden of implementing the new requirements.  It has provided little in terms of fiscal relief to states.  Instead, it has focused on enforcement by monitoring the states for compliance and insuring that states adhere to the implementation timelines and meet the technical requirements of the law. 


  • While the administration has allowed considerable variability in how states designed their accountability plans, they selectively enforced and narrowly interpreted requirements that advanced their policy priorities.  This approach runs the risk of alienating local officials who must implement the law and overwhelming educational systems that cannot meet the stringent requirements.  Unless the administration gains the cooperation of local officials and develops a constituency for this law among professional educators, it is unlikely to achieve its policy goals.   

When federalism works well there is collaboration across levels of government and federal deference to state priorities.  Usually, policy is shaped to accommodate local circumstances while local conditions change in response to reform initiatives.  For this to happen, there needs to be flexibility on the part of the federal government and the development of professional expertise and a political support structure at the local level that can work both formally and informally to put policies in place.  The Bush administration’s strategy for implementing NCLB—to adhere strictly to implementation timelines and threaten to withhold Title I funds to states out of compliance— departs from this model of cooperative federalism.  While the administration recognizes the political significance of educational policy and has moved aggressively to promote its education agenda with the American public, it seems less aware of the institutional and organizational impediments to dramatically changing state accountability systems and educational practices.  For federalism to work, the administration needs to recognize the limitations of it current approach and how far NCLB deviates from the traditional model of federal-state relations.  Finally, the administration needs to acknowledge the legitimate role of each level of government in the educational system and re-consider the proper role of the federal government within this broader framework.


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