MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
Congress kicked off debate on the effort to reauthorize and perhaps improve the No Child Left Behind education law. House Education and Labor Chair George Miller invited 44 witnesses to comment on a draft he's been circulating.
But as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, the number of witnesses alone indicates how tough it's going to be to get the job done anytime soon.
LARRY ABRAMSON: If you thought that lobbying around an education bill would be somehow different - more subdued, more lofty - well, forget it. The room for this hearing was as packed as it would be if a major transportation bill were on the table. The halls were lined with educators and civil rights advocates.
Mr. DEAN VOGEL (Vice president, California Teachers Association): I'm Dean Vogel, vice president of California Teachers Association.
ABRAMSON: Dean Vogel and his colleagues flew all the way out from the West Coast to tell Congress what they think of proposals to reward teachers when their students succeed.
Mr. VOGEL: It's a blatant attack on collective bargaining. And we believe that's the business of locals, local school boards and local bargaining units. And we don't need Congress to be another school board.
ABRAMSON: Those who were invited to speak to the House Education and Labor Committee disagreed about many things. But here's what's interesting: by and large, the 44 teachers, academics, union reps and social reformers accept that this law - for all of its flaws - is here to stay.
Bob Wise, head of the Alliance for Excellent Education, used to be governor of West Virginia.
Mr. BOB WISE (President, Alliance for Excellent Education; Former Governor, West Virginia): When I was governor several years ago, I was one of the ones seriously considering filing suit to enjoin the implementation of NCLB. And quite frankly, I was wrong, and I'm glad I didn't go forward.
ABRAMSON: Wise and others now accept that No Child Left Behind has raised standards for the lowest-performing kids. The question now is this: Should the federal government give schools credit for making progress with the most challenging kid even if they are not at the levels the law demands? That's something a lot of schools want, and Chairman Miller has proposed building that flexibility into the law.
But Andrea Messina of the independent No Child Left Behind Commission says that would be a mistake.
Ms. ANDREA MESSINA (Co-Chair, No Child Left Behind Commission): Any approach that credit simple movement forward can weaken the accountability structure. And students could make forward progress every year and never reach proficiency. We want to see a deadline for proficiency there.
ABRAMSON: Feelings are so intense and so divided on this issue that Congressman Miller may wish he'd never raised it. But it's a fundamental part of this law and it's one issue the committee will have to address. Miller may find it more tempting to embrace less controversial ideas such as expanding the law to include high schools. Right now, the law barely touches secondary education and many people feel that's where students fall off the map.
Miller also wants more focus on training high school students for the modern workforce. Both ideas got lots of support today, and Miller was relieved to get some positive feedback.
Representative GEORGE MILLER (Democrat, California; Chairman, House Committee on Education and Labor): This isn't about kids graduating today. It's about kids moving into a workforce where they're going to be required to have another set, you know, more and more set of skills that aren't taught in most schools.
ABRAMSON: Committee members heard from people all across the educational landscape - special educators, civil rights advocates, those who teach English language learners - each feels their group has been hurt or left out by some facet of this law. But despite all the lobbying, this reauthorization effort won't get at what many feel is the key weakness with the law - lack of federal funding.
Democrat Dale Kildee of Michigan.
Representative DALE KILDEE (Democrat, Michigan; Senior Member, House Committee on Education and Labor): I, for years, have used the analogy that an authorization is like a get-well card. It expresses our sentiment and how we value the person to whom we sent the get-well card. But what our friend really needs is the Blue Cross card. And the Blue Cross card is the appropriations bill.
ABRAMSON: Many analysts believe Congress will never get this get-well card through both Houses of Congress before the end of the year.
Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.
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