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Democratic societies extol education as a means of providing people with equal opportunities, a goal that American political culture values. Americans have always left education to state governments and have shied away from too much federal control. As a result, American students do not always receive equal educational opportunities.

The Federal Role in Education

For most of American history, the federal government played little or no role in education. Education was thought to be a local issue, best regulated by local and state governments. In 1965, with the passage of the Higher Education Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal government provided funding for education for the first time. In 1979, Congress created the Department of Education, which heralded a new level of federal involvement in education. Recently, many education advocates have pushed for stronger accountability from teachers and schools. This accountability comes in the form of standardized tests, which evaluate students’ basic skills and knowledge. A school with low-scoring students would be punished for failing to help or adequately educate students.

The No Child Left Behind Act

In the 2000 presidential race, Republican candidate George W. Bush pledged to regulate accountability on the federal level. After becoming president, Bush worked with Democrats and Republicans in Congress to pass the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001. The act provided more money to schools but required all schools in the country to meet certain educational standards in return.

NCLB has provoked controversy. The powerful teachers’ lobby, the National Education Association, has argued that the act forces teachers to change their curricula and essentially teach only to the tests. Other critics contend that the federal government has not provided nearly enough funds to help schools adhere to the NCLB parameters. Finally, some critics claim that NCLB functions like an unfunded mandate, forcing state and local governments to spend money to meet the law’s standards.

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