What’s the Deal on NCLB Funding?

If Eduwonk had ten dollars for every time someone asks whether No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is underfunded or unfunded…well, you’d be reading gonefishingwonk.com right now. It’s understandable that there are a lot of questions about this, because it’s a hard question to answer. In classic Washington style, the answer depends on what you mean by under-funded.

Technically NCLB is not an unfunded mandate. That’s because NCLB, like most other federal education aid, is conditional aid, meaning states accept it based on also accepting certain requirements. Of course, some argue that: (a) States cannot afford not to take the money, and (b) In the case of a law like IDEA, the federal special education law, states and schools are obligated to meet other mandates anyway so they might as well take the money. Both points are valid and could perhaps lead to an argument that these programs are de facto mandates. But, technically, they’re not unfunded mandates in the generally accepted use of that term.

So is NCLB underfunded? Well, that too is definitional. Congress passes most domestic policy legislation in two phases. First, when laws are passed Congress authorizes an amount that can be spent, a ceiling. Then, each year, Congress decides how much to spend. NCLB spending is now more than $7 billion under that ceiling, so it is underfunded in the sense that Congress could spend more on it within the bounds of the law. But nothing obligates Congress to spend that much, and many programs are perennially funded under the levels authorized by law.

So, does NCLB need more funding? In the last Education Next James Peyser and Robert Costrell argue that for the most part the funding is sufficient. By contrast, Vermont school superintendent William J. Mathis argues that the funding is wildly insufficient (he gets some aspects of NCLB wrong, but for the point of this discussion focus on the funding debate). Read the articles yourself and decide. Eduwonk thinks that Peyser and Costrell get the best of the debate except for one key problem they ignore–the politics of implementation. [Masochists can click here and here for more Peyser/Costrell — Mathis back and forth in Education Week.]

Whether the law is funded or not is something of an academic question for those charged with implementing it. For them money is the grease and the leverage that makes implementation work. Whether or not existing resources could be used better (and of course they could, something that many cost estimates overlook by assuming that current spending patterns are fixed) a lot of current spending is tied up in personnel because of the labor intensive nature of education, and reallocating that is no mean task.

The Bush administration’s failure to see this and use money strategically to advance the law’s goals is one of the big failures of their implementation effort. Not only could they have removed a key political argument against the law, they could have helped those charged with making it work by giving them crucial leverage. Considering their overall approach to fiscal discipline this approach seems especially pennywise-pound foolish. The administration does not seem to understand the role of money in policymaking. They passed a reform-light Medicare bill we can barely afford and a reform-heavy education bill without enough money behind it…

More Money Afterthought: We’re talking about funding in the overall generic sense here…Eduwonk still thinks specific NCLB-oriented activities like test development, public school choice and charter schools, and teacher quality remain underfunded.

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