Eleven years ago, I moved to Washington, D.C. to work on education. The liberal think tank that hired me focused on state issues, so I had nothing to do with the project that was consuming D.C. wonks at the time: a once-a-decade reauthorization of the mammoth federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would become the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. I didn’t quite appreciate the scale of it until late September, when a refugee from the anthrax attack on the Hart Senate Office building decamped in our conference room and described the cabinets of notes, research, analysis, and draft legislation he had been forced to abandon until the building could be properly flooded with cleansing poison gas.
Somehow, they managed to finish the bill anyway. In hindsight, many gave credit to the brief post-9/11 spirit of proving that the people’s work would not be halted by terrorists, foreign or domestic. But the NCLB was also the product of an historic and unlikely communion between President George W. Bush, who at the time still held a vestige of his “compassionate conservative” mantle, and Senator Edward Kennedy, whose family involvement with ESEA dated back to Robert Kennedy’s role in writing the original bill in 1965. Both men genuinely believed in the idea of administering annual standardized tests to schoolchildren and holding schools accountable for the results. Schools would be judged by escalating performance targets that reached 100 percent proficiency in 2014, with serious consequences for those that fell short. NCLB passed Congress with 91 votes in the Senate and 384 in the House.