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Published in: Emory Law Journal, Vol. 56, no. 1 (2006).


The No Child Left Behind Act represents the federal government's most significant foray into the nation's elementary and secondary public school policymaking terrain. Although the Act undertakes unassailable policy goals, its critics argue that it represents an unwarranted federal intrusion into education policymaking, generates unintended policy consequences, and amounts to an unfunded federal mandate. Constitutionalists dwell on the Act's threat to structural federalism as it plausibly strains Congress's conditional spending authority. The coercive force that federal education funds exert on local school districts and states attracts particular attention. The No Child Left Behind Act, however, safely navigates through an even more rigorous conception of the coercion prohibition as articulated by the Court in South Dakota v. Dole. The Act, while coercive, is not unconstitutionally coercive as it imposes only an opportunity cost on states willing to forego federal funding. Although the No Child Left Behind Act does not violate the conditional spending doctrine as presently understood, from a policy perspective the Act generates important coercive force. Such policy coercion arises due to the unusually close nexus among various education policies, including student achievement, curriculum, standards and assessments, and finance. Understanding this crucial subtlety about the political economy of education federalism is one key to understanding the full, ongoing debate surrounding intergovernmental squabbles over education policy among federal, state, and local officials.

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No Child Left Behind Act