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Neither party was all that wild about the bill at the outset. Democrats--and the teachers' unions that backed them--feared the bill prescribed reforms that were too disruptive and, at its worst, was a backdoor scheme to defund public schools, a concern fueled by Bush's introducing NCLB at the same time he was talking up private-school vouchers. Republicans, never fans of federal rules and regulations, were leery of depriving states of the control that they historically exercised over schools. Still, Democrats saw the bill as their best chance to enact significant education reform (and get schools the money that often comes with it), and Republicans wanted to support their new President's top domestic-policy idea. When Bush rolled out the plan on his third day in office, he did so with bipartisan help from Ohio Representative John Boehner and Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy. The bill passed with overwhelming support, 384 to 45 in the House and 91 to 8 in the Senate. "You're seeing government at its best," Bush said at the bill signing. "We figured out how to put our parties aside and focus on what's right for the American children."
That support began to erode almost immediately. Eight months after the law was enacted, the Department of Education released its first list of failing schools. Nearly 9,000 schools were named--and not just the inner-city schools everyone expected to see on the list. By dividing the test results into subgroups, the law exposed achievement gaps at wealthy, suburban schools where high-flying majorities had long masked the low achievement of minority and special-ed students. "The law allowed us to get under the definition of what is good and ask the question, Is this school really good for all kids?" says Kati Haycock, president of the national policy group Education Trust. And as schools were labeled failing, states pushed back. "School systems spent a lot of time being defensive," says California Representative George Miller, a Democrat, one of the lead authors of NCLB. "They got angry. They were embarrassed." Then they got creative. By year's end, Utah had removed some of the more difficult questions from its statewide exams, and Ohio refined its criteria for determining which schools were low-performing so that the number shrank from 760 to 200. These changes inspired other states to follow their lead.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats began attacking the Administration for underfunding the law, despite the 19% increase in federal spending for elementary and secondary education Bush had pushed through, and Republicans began lamenting the magnified federal role in education. By the time the law's first anniversary came around, Kennedy, who had stood beside Bush at the bill signing, boycotted the ceremony. By its second anniversary, at least 20 states had banded together in revolt, urging Congress to exempt them from the law. It got so bad that by the time NCLB came up for reauthorization in 2007, no one wanted to touch it. NCLB was jury-rigged from the start and fell apart almost immediately.
Minding the Gap