Voicing opposition to the words "no child left behind" is like shunning apple pie, the Fourth of July, and baseball all in one day. Of course, no one likes the idea of leaving a kid behind. But parents who were recently asked about their views on specifics of the two-year-old education reform initiative of the same name were hardly enthusiastic.
In a nationwide survey among 699 parents conducted by Opinion Research Corporation (ORC) and sponsored by Results for America, respondents were supportive of the concept of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) but critical of the initiative's punitive terms, especially in relation to their own children's schools.
"The level of support melts away significantly when they are asked to consider what this could mean specifically in the context of their child's school," says Wayne Russum, ORC's senior research manager.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of NCLB is its high-stakes testing requirement - parents worry that teachers devote precious classroom time to "teaching to the test." However, some observers point out, should children fail a mandatory proficiency test, they may indeed be left behind. In Massachusetts, for example, a failing grade on the MCAS test can mean that a high school senior won't graduate.
Another hot-button issue is the threat to stop funding or close low-performing schools rather than to devote federal funds toward improving them. Nearly 3 out of 4 parents would oppose cutting federal funds to their children's school if it were deemed to be failing, and only 13 percent favor linking federal funds to performance.
Other results from the nation's first opinion survey since implementation of NCLB: a third of parents say the reforms are "punishing schools for failure instead of rewarding them for success," a quarter of respondents view NCLB as "limiting learning by students," and fewer than half of them associate the school reforms with "improving learning."
The bottom line, says Pam Solo, president of the Civil Society Institute, which oversees the Results for America project, is that the majority of parents think the federal government should provide funds for education - and that's it. How those funds are used, they say, should be the choice of each individual state.
"When you support a nurturing positive learning environment," she says, "that is far better than having the education police constantly look over your shoulder."
If it were up to these parents, whose children include all school ages from 48 US states (excluding Alaska and Hawaii), half of them would opt to use federal funds to shrink class sizes, whereas only 10 percent would put them toward implementation and enforcement of NCLB. "Parents are right to favor smaller classes, which would allow for more individual attention and flexibility in dealing with different learning styles," says Ms. Solo. "Parents want policies that respond to the fact that no two children are the same."
Other uses for federal funds these parents would favor over NCLB include increased spending on the arts, after-school programs, and professional enrichment for teachers.
Along the lines of providing support to teachers, the federal government's No. 1 priority, parents say, should be to "provide technical assistance to states and local school districts to promote new and more effective approaches to teaching and learning."
For the most part, survey results transcend demographics and political leanings. For instance, 61 percent of Republican parents join most independents (84 percent) and Democrats (79 percent) in opposition to withholding funds from their child's school for failing to meet NCLB standards.
• For more information about the survey, visit