'No Child Left Behind' Law Up for Renewal

The Bush administration is using the law's fifth anniversary to urge reauthorization without changes. But the process won't be as simple as the adminstration once hoped.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Bush administration is marking the fifth anniversary of the education law known as No Child Left Behind. In a speech yesterday, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said the law introduced accountability for school children.

Secretary MARGARET SPELLINGS (Education Secretary): Before this act became law, we simply put the money out and hoped for the best. Kids were shuffled from grade to grade without any accountability, without any discussion of whether they could actually read, write, add or subtract.

MONTAGNE: Secretary Spellings said that test scores have improved, especially for minority children. But as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, No Child Left Behind may be facing its toughest test as a key deadline approaches, a deadline many schools are expected to miss.

LARRY ABRAMSON: That deadline, in case you're marking up your calendar, is the year 2014. That's when No Child Left Behind says that every school child in this country should be reading at grade level. A lot of people say that simply cannot be done, but Spellings indicated this goal should not budge.

Sec. SPELLINGS: I have yet to meet a parent - and if any of you feel this way, please come forward - who says I don't want my child on grade level now, let alone by 2014.

ABRAMSON: Congress is set to reauthorize No Child Left Behind as soon as this year, and there's a lot of pressure to relax that deadline. Margaret Spellings says federal standards have caused test scores to rise in recent years. Relax the deadline, she says, and those improvements will disappear.

But some education experts say the gain seen in the early years of the law cannot be sustained. Jack Jennings, with the Center for Education Policy, says that when No Child Left Behind was passed five years ago, many states knew they could not make the targets.

Mr. JACK JENNINGS (Director, Center for Education Policy): And so what many of the states did was they set a schedule so that it was easier to achieve the goals in the beginning, and then the goals became steeper towards the end. And now that we're getting closer to 2014, the goals are getting higher and higher. And it's going to be much more difficult to achieve.

ABRAMSON: Whether or not Congress actually votes to reauthorize No Child Left Behind this year, some lawmakers are pushing to boost funding for schools that are trying to comply with the law. As with other education laws, the federal government never came up with the money that was promised.

Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, says the feds must reimburse states for the cost of testing that's required by No Child Left Behind.

Mr. REG WEAVER (President, National Education Association): Why should states have to spend their own money to promote and to implement federal mandates?

ABRAMSON: Yesterday, President Bush met with the new Democratic leaders of the relevant committees in Congress. Congressman George Miller of California said he'd be pushing for more money. After the meeting, Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts said he's already introduced legislation that is supposed to address another key criticism of the law - the fact that each state currently sets its own standards.

Senator TED KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): It'll be basically encouraging the state, offering opportunities for the states to participate in these programs so that we achieve that objective.

ABRAMSON: The idea is that states would set a higher bar for their students if they're provided with a financial incentive to do so. That's just one effort to amend No Child Left Behind through new legislation without having to touch the law itself. Many education experts say the law is just too complex and too controversial for the new Congress to mess with this year - ditto for 2008, a presidential election year. They're betting that people would keep fighting over this law until 2009, when many think Congress will finally get around to reauthorizing it.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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