STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep in Washington, where Iraq is not the only issue up for debate before Congress today.
A House committee today begins months of debate over the future of the No Child Left Behind Act. For five years now, the law has imposed strict deadlines and requirements on the nation's 90,000 public schools. Now, one of the law's biggest supporters says schools need a break.
NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, a 32-year veteran of Congress, has spent the last five years staunchly defending the No Child Left Behind Act, a law he co-authored. He defended it when critics said it was too burdensome, too sweeping, too intrusive, and too punitive.
With the law up for reauthorization, Miller says he still supports its key principles: mandatory testing, a breakdown of students' scores by race and income, and sanctions for schools that don't measure up.
Representative GEORGE MILLER (Democrat, California): It is our intent, our purpose to hold steadfast to those principles and not yield on them. 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.
SANCHEZ: Last week, Miller conceded before a group of business leaders meeting in Washington that critics of the law 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 and a ranking Republican on his committee, Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, are now calling for new ways to measure schools' progress year to year - 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.
Rep. MILLER: None of this requires a retreat from accountability. None of this requires retreat from assessments that give us the kind of information that will be useful.
SANCHEZ: Waiting in the wings, listening carefully was U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.
Secretary MARGARET SPELLINGS (U.S. Department of Education): I find it, in some ways, amazing that we're debating or discussion whether it's reasonable or not to give every single child these basic skills that they need to participate in our democracy and in this economy.
SANCHEZ: Although her rebuttal was diplomatic, Spellings told reporters afterwards that she was deeply troubled by the changes that Miller and his committee are considering.
Sec. SPELLINGS: If this is moving more kids into accountability, more vigorous accountability, I'm all for it. If it's a retreat or watering down or a walking away from - any of that, I'm not for it.
SANCHEZ: It's not any single change that's the problem, says Spellings, it's the number and combination of changes that could create all kinds of loopholes and possibly reduce services for kids who really need them. Nobody wants that, of course. But in just about every state, education officials insist the law is out of whack.
Billy Cannaday, Virginia's Superintendent of Public Instruction, says the law makes no distinction between schools that are falling short by a little and those that are failing miserably.
Mr. BILLY CANNADAY (Superintendent of Public Instruction, Virginia): 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, I think, that we'd like to give attention to is more attention to how to address the needs of English language learners.
SANCHEZ: That's another huge issue, says Cannaday. At least one proposal that Congress is considering, though, would give non-English speaking children five years instead of three to transition into English-only classrooms. Secretary Spellings opposes that idea, too. In some ways, she says, a stalemate would be better than a law that let schools off the hook.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.