Few laws have been more hotly debated in the last decade than the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known as No Child Left Behind. Nearly 10 years since its passage, we have an excellent opportunity to reauthorize and strengthen it.
By measuring academic performance — and publicizing the results — NCLB has held schools accountable to students, parents and taxpayers. The law has dramatically enhanced public school choice by expanding charter schools. Today, 1.5 million children attend nearly 5,000 charter schools in 40 states, three times more schools and students than in 2000.
No Child Left Behind also set high standards, establishing real deadlines and real consequences if those deadlines are not met.
But even its most ardent supporters would acknowledge that the law can be improved. And given the current state of our K-12 education system — where only one-third of high school students graduate on time (50 percent for minorities) and 40 percent of those who make it to college require remedial courses — we must seize every opportunity for additional reform.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce believes that NCLB can be strengthened in four fundamental ways. First, under the law, states should establish a grading system, such as A-F, for school performance to provide the public with clear and meaningful information. The grading system would classify all schools in the state based on the actual performance of their students on state assessments, the academic growth of students over time and the progress in closing achievement gaps between student groups. States must then target assistance and interventions to schools in each grading category.
Second, parents and students — especially those in low-performing schools — must have more choices. Education funds should “follow the child” to wherever parents believe that their children can receive a better education, including free tutoring, public school choice, charter schools, online learning and private school choice.
Third, the law should support the identification, development and retention of effective teachers and principals who produce real gains in student achievement. Teacher tenure policies that reward longevity over performance ought to be overhauled, and federal law should not inhibit state and local efforts to make changes to tenure policies.
Fourth, the law should eliminate ineffective programs and provide states more flexibility with regard to resources with which to meet their achievement targets.
The Chamber of Commerce stands ready to work with the Obama administration and both parties in Congress to get a new law passed. There can be no retreat from our national commitment to the success of every child.
— Tom Donohue is president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.