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.