The context for this article is the public response to the federal role in the oversight and enforcement of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). This response has been characterized by a tension between concerns about federal interference in public education and support for federal activism. Despite a number of similarities between the state and local responses to the two laws, research on the federal role in implementing NCLB has largely disregarded the long record of federal oversight and enforcement of IDEA.
The purpose of this analytic essay is to address this omission through a comparative policy analysis of the oversight and enforcement mechanisms in IDEA and NCLB, the evolution of these mechanisms in the legislative process, their implementation by the Department of Education, and the interest group and academic responses to this implementation.
The research design consists of a review of the statutes, Congressional documents, governmental reports, interest group position papers, policy analyses, press reports, and relevant academic literature. The author discusses the implications of this analysis for the future of the federal role in the oversight and enforcement of NCLB, and the recently reauthorized IDEA and the federal focus on improving educational outcomes. The author argues that the design of NCLB’s outcomes-based accountability model, combined with its dependence on the Department of Education to provide oversight and enforcement, has produced unintended consequences at the state level, including regulatory incoherence and incentives for “gaming the system.” He notes that similar problems can be projected for the implementation of the new outcomes-based oversight and enforcement model in IDEA 2004.
The author recommends that Congress turn the accountability model in NCLB “inside out,” establishing national standards, a single national performance assessment, fixed and achievable targets for proficiency, and predefined subgroup sizes while devolving responsibility for the details of the district- and school-level accountability system to the states. In IDEA’s case, he recommends setting national targets for a small number of outcome indicators while maintaining the current system of focused monitoring. He argues that this model, in combination with federal incentives for meeting performance targets, would provide for a more realistic and effective federal role in improving public education.