The House Education and Labor committee was set Monday to start a months-long debate over the future of the education reform act No Child Left Behind, but a longtime supporter is advocating for a break from the strictures that have come to shape it.
For five years now the law has imposed strict deadlines and requirements on the nation's 90,000 public schools.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the law's co-author, has spent the last five years defending No Child Left Behind. He rebuffed critics who said it was too burdensome, too sweeping, too intrusive and too punitive.
But with the law up for reauthorization, Miller still supports its key principles: mandatory testing, a breakdown of students' test scores by race and income, and sanctions for schools that don't measure up.
"It is our intent to hold steadfast to those principles, but there's a very clear perception in this country that this law is not fair or flexible when it comes to judging students, teachers or schools," Miller said.
Last week he conceded before a group of business leaders meeting in Washington that the law's critics were right. The U.S. Education Department's reliance on standardized tests to gauge the success or failure of schools has provided an incomplete, if not distorted, snapshot at best.
So as chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, Miller along with the ranking Republican on his committee, Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, are now calling for new ways to measure a schools' progress year to year.
They are taking into account things like graduation rates, using local rather than state tests, or simply giving some students more time to catch up in subjects like reading and math.
"None of this requires a retreat from accountability; from assessments that give us information that will be useful," he said.
U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings doesn't agree.
"I find it in some ways amazing that we're debating whether it's reasonable or not to give every child the basic skills they need to participate in our democracy and in this economy," she said.
Although her rebuttal was diplomatic, spellings told reporters afterwards that she was "deeply troubled" by the changes that Miller and his committee are considering.
"If this is moving more kids into more vigorous accountability I'm all for it. If it's a retreat or watering down or walking away from that, I'm not for it," said Spellings.
It's not any single change that's the problem, said Spellings. Instead, it's the number and combination of changes that could create all kinds of loopholes — and possibly fewer services — for kids who really need them.
In just about every state, education officials insist the law is out of whack.
Billy Cannaday, Jr., Superintendent of Public Instruction for Virginia, said the law makes no distinction between schools that are falling short by a little and those that are failing miserably.
"And worse yet, it does not appear to recognize schools that have a history of high performance. It's hard for the average citizen to make sense of that. The second area is more attention to how to address the needs of English-language learners," said Cannaday.
At least one proposal that Congress is considering would give non-English speaking children five instead of three years to switch into English-only classrooms.
Secretary Spellings opposes that idea too. In some ways, she said, a stalemate would be better than a weaker law.