From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

We begin this hour with the ESEA. That is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, passed back in 1965. The Bush administration called its rewrite of the act No Child Left Behind. And today, the Obama administration's version faced its first major test.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan defended his plan before two congressional committees. As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, some of the biggest concerns about the proposal came from Democrats.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Secretary Duncan found a few defenders of the existing law. Many in Congress share Duncan's concerns that it has helped turn many schools into testing mills.

Secretary ARNE DUNCAN (Department of Education): It encourages a narrowing of the curriculum and focuses on test preparation. It labels too many schools with the same failing label, regardless of their challenges.

ABRAMSON: But the new proposal, announced by President Obama this past weekend, has already run into a buzzsaw of criticism. Senators on the Education and Labor Committee raised concerns about requirements that low-performing schools replace their staffs.

Senator Mike Enzi, a Republican from Wyoming, told Duncan the models the administration has proposed for remaking schools won't work in his rural state.

Senator MIKE ENZI (Republican, Wyoming): Many of the rural school districts are unable to implement, I don't think, any of the four models because it's difficult to replace the principal, fire half the staff, close the school, or convert the school to a charter school when the next closest school is over 60 miles away.

ABRAMSON: School administrators have raised similar concerns, saying the proposal would essentially place the lowest-performing schools under federal control. Secretary Duncan insisted No Child Left Behind 2.0 offers plenty of flexibility.

Many Democrats are worried about new mandates that would make states compete for a growing share of federal money. Senator Patty Murray, of Washington state, says she's worried her state will lose grants that support better teacher evaluations. Duncan said the switch to competitive grants is supposed to force change on a broken system.

Sec. DUNCAN: But honestly, what we don't want to do is just continue to fund the status quo. When it doesn't work for any adults, it's not working for children, either.

Senator PATTY MURRAY (Democrat, Washington): I can understand requiring states to undertake activities to improve their teacher-quality grants. But if we make this into a winner-loser, competitive thing, we're going to create a bigger gap.

ABRAMSON: Murray said if successful states get financial rewards, they will pull further ahead of struggling states.

The pressure to improve teacher evaluations is something both parties are worried about. Republicans charged the requirement would simply detract from state efforts to improve teaching. Republican Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma, pointed to a proposed requirement that states develop definitions for effective teachers and principals.

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): That's another Washington mandate -that we're going to develop those, and we're going to say whether you measure it when in fact, outcomes are what count.

ABRAMSON: As Duncan testified today, headlines flashed about more schools closing in Detroit, and schools nationwide facing catastrophic funding cuts. Many educators say they're worried about adapting to new federal rules while old economic pressures continue to mount.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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