RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And a Senate education committee today is working on a bipartisan bill to revise the No Child Left Behind Act. Critics say that law puts too much emphasis on tests and punishes too many schools. Congress has tried but repeatedly failed to overhaul it. Here's NPR's Juana Summers.
JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Thirteen years ago, President George W. Bush signed into law one of the most sweeping education bills in 35 years. He called it the first step in transforming the public education system.
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PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The fundamental principle of this bill is that every child can learn. We expect every child to learn. And you must show us whether or not every child is learning.
SUMMERS: That bill was No Child Left Behind. Bush signed it into law at a Hamilton, Ohio, high school with liberal Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy by his side. But what was seen then as a major victory uniting Democrats and Republicans has now morphed into a great divider.
SANDY KRESS: We made very good strides, but the law pinched hard. And so it developed opponents, and it invited controversy.
SUMMERS: That's Sandy Kress, an advisor to President Bush and one of the architects of No Child Left Behind. The law greatly increased the federal government's role in public schools and required that every child be proficient in reading and math by 2014, as measured by standardized testing. Schools that didn't hit the mark were punished by the federal government, with penalties ranging from mandated tutoring to school takeover. Jack Jennings, a former Hill staffer who founded the Center on Education Policy, says the law should be scrapped.
JACK JENNINGS: I think No Child Left Behind should be thrown overboard. Under President Bush, it became a very punitive measure that teachers resent that has led to schools, especially with concentrations of poor children, where kids spend hours preparing for the tests and not being taught.
SUMMERS: In fact, 42 states have asked for and been granted waivers from its requirements. But on Capitol Hill, lawmakers haven't figured out a way to rewrite No Child Left Behind. The debate is tied to bigger questions about just how big a role the federal government should have in public schools. And Kress, who helped write the law, says it's also partly because of the law's mission.
KRESS: While it became controversial, people didn't want to abandon the goal. It's something the nation needs.
SUMMERS: That goal - helping schools improve reading and math. And now Congress is trying again to give the law a facelift. The Senate bill would toss out the most punitive elements of No Child Left Behind. While students would still have to take tests in reading and math each year, teachers would no longer be judged by students' test scores. And schools would no longer face federal punishment for failing to make adequate yearly progress on those scores. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says it's critical that No Child Left Behind gets an overhaul but that the Senate proposal still needs changes.
U.S. EDUCATION SECRETARY ARNE DUNCAN: It is not perfect. We can give you a list of 50 things that we want to see improved. But at least there's a good-faith effort. There's a good-faith attempt. And we want to do anything we can to move it in the right direction.
SUMMERS: It's not clear what the bill's chances are in Congress. Earlier this year, a House overhaul bill was pulled from consideration when leaders realized they didn't have enough Republican votes to pass it. Juana Summers, NPR News, The Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.