RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
President Bush used his State of the Union address to highlight what he characterized as the great success of his landmark No Child Left Behind initiative. That federal plan aimed at improving public schools has to be renewed now. And six years after it won strong bipartisan support, it's drawing overwhelmingly bipartisan opposition.
NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: So how did No Child Left Behind, enacted with such lofty expectations and political fanfare, come to be viewed as an unworkable, heavy-handed, underfunded mandate? The answer depends on who you talk to, starting with the co-author of the law, Representative George Miller, Democrat of California.
Representative GEORGE MILLER (Democrat, California): No Child Left Behind is the most fundamental reform of federal education policy in 40 years, but when you have the president break his promise to fund those reforms, that poisoned the well.
SANCHEZ: Okay. So not enough money was one big reason for the law's shortcomings. But it's not the only reason, says Roy Romer, former governor of Colorado, former chair of the Democratic Party, and former superintendent of schools in Los Angeles.
Mr. ROY ROMER (Former Superintendent of Schools in Los Angeles): Look, that law is not adequate. There are too many tests, and it's clumsy. And it's not as effective as it ought to be. It needs to be reenacted. It needs to be improved. It should not be thrown away.
SANCHEZ: There's also the skepticism that educators expressed early on, like Dennis Malone, principal of Hamilton High School in Ohio, where President Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law.
Mr. DENNIS MALONE (Principal, Hamilton High School): Some teachers believe that it's good and we need to make the change. You're still going to find others who say, wow, you know, we really don't need this. We were fine where we were and, you know, leave us alone.
SANCHEZ: Then there's economist Richard Rothstein's absolutely scathing criticism of the law's most important goal - getting every single student in America to perform at or above grade level by 2014.
Mr. RICHARD ROTHSTEIN (Economist): The notion that with schools alone you can create equal achievement for children of different social backgrounds is one that's not based in any research. It's not based in any experience. It's not based in any true understanding of what the many, many factors that contribute to students' achievement are, that health doesn't matter, that housing doesn't matter, that dysfunctional communities don't matter. I don't think we can make social policy on the basis of a myth.
SANCHEZ: As for Congress, some Republicans now question whether No Child Left Behind was even necessary. Representative Scott Garrett of New Jersey was elected the year No Child Left Behind became law. He says he would have opposed it because it has put the U.S. on a slippery slope to federalizing public education.
Representative SCOTT GARRETT (Republican, New Jersey): Where every single child in the entire country is reading from the exact same book at the exact same hour, taking the exact same test at the exact same minute. That doesn't bring us to a 21st world-class education. That just brings us to mediocrity.
SANCHEZ: Garrett wants to give states the right to opt out of No Child Left Behind. It's an idea that several governors support, but Congress is unlikely to seriously consider. So with the renewal of the law in limbo, opponents now have more time to chip away at other things they don't like about it. Connecticut and a handful of school districts in Michigan, Texas and Vermont have gone so far as to sue the federal government, arguing that the law is an unfunded mandate and therefore unconstitutional.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings doesn't sound like she's losing any sleep over this or anything else critics are threatening to do. In a recent speech at the National Press Club, Spellings said the law will not be watered down, not on her watch.
Ms. MARGARET SPELLINGS (Education Secretary): And today, from Massachusetts to Florida, from New York City to Atlanta to Houston, those that first championed this approach are reaping the greatest results.
SANCHEZ: Reading and math scores, says Spellings, are at historic highs. But that's not because of No Child Left Behind, says Congressman Garrett.
Rep. GARRETT: And it's not just me saying that, it's, you know, the Fordham Foundation did a study on it and they said that, yeah, there's some improvements in some areas but they're modest compared to what improvements we saw prior to No Child Left Behind.
SANCHEZ: That's true. The most dramatic gains in math began long before No Child Left Behind became law. Based on the Education Department's own data, reading scores have in fact remained flat since the law took effect six years ago. The achievement gap between blacks and whites meanwhile is still pretty big. One study shows that if the gains under No Child Left Behind remain as meager as they've been thus far, it'll take decades to eliminate the gaps in math and reading.
Still, Secretary Spellings insists that short of a major revamping of the law, six years from now all students will be performing at grade level. There will be no gap.
Ms. SPELLINGS: Remember, what we're asking for is grade level reading and math ability by 2014. Is that too much to ask from our schools? I don't think so.
SANCHEZ: Congress will change No Child Left Behind for the better, says Congressman George Miller - if not this year, next year under a new administration.
Rep. MILLER: We're not going to give up on these reforms. We're not going to go back to having teachers that don't know what they're teaching. We're not going to go back to masking the poor performance of poor minority children.
SANCHEZ: And, Miller says, those who think that Congress is going to give up on No Child Left Behind are kidding themselves.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.