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House And Senate Lawmakers Work To Revise No Child Left Behind Law


This week, lawmakers in the House and Senate are working to rewrite No Child Left Behind. That's George W. Bush's signature education law that was passed in 2001. NPR's Juana Summers covers Congress and joins us with the latest. Hey, Juana.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

GREENE: So why is this rewrite happening?

SUMMERS: This rewrite's happening because No Child Left Behind hasn't done what it was supposed to do.


SUMMERS: When it started, it was supposed to close gaps in achievement between poor students and students of color and their more affluent peers. And to do that, there are these annual tests in reading and math. Critics say it's trouble. Teachers don't like that they're teaching to these tests and that it just makes students have to take too many tests to actually see results.

GREENE: Well, and this rewrite sounds a little complicated because there are separate bills in the House and Senate.

SUMMERS: You're absolutely right, and it is a little bit complicated. So let's start with the Senate. There's a bipartisan push there led by Lamar Alexander of Tennessee - he's a Republican and a former education secretary - and Patty Murray of Washington, a Democrat who's a former preschool teacher. Now, according to their bill, students would still have to take reading and math tests, but those tests would effectively mean less. The states, instead of the federal government, would decide how to use those tests when they measure and assess school and teacher performance. The Senate bill would also bar the federal government from setting any specific set of academic standards. Now, that is, of course, a swipe at the widely adopted standards known as the Common Core, which are a frequent punching bag of conservatives. They say the Common Core increases federal involvement in education.

GREENE: OK, so is the House bill that different from what you're talking about here in the Senate?

SUMMERS: It is different in a lot of really important ways. This is a Republican-led bill, not a bipartisan push. It would give the states more control over accountability rather than the federal government. And it also includes a provision that's a little thorny that would allow public funding to follow low-income kids to different public schools. So say a low-income student leaves a high poverty school and enrolls instead in a more affluent one. The federal funds would then go with the student. Republicans really like that idea, but Democrats and the Obama administration have said that it would starve the nation's neediest schools from federal funds that they desperately need.

GREENE: So this was a law that President Bush, you know, really pushed when he came into office. Many are seeing it as not succeeding, and there's this push to sort of rewrite it in different ways. I mean, is there something broad here that this debate is about?

SUMMERS: From where I see it, the debate is really about who gets to decide what works best in the classroom. One of the big questions here is who gets to decide how to define and fix failing schools. Republicans would like to leave that up to states, but many Democrats want to see the federal government force states to act when schools fail to meet their testing targets. And another question that's a little bit related is how much the federal government should do to make sure every student gets the resources that he or she needs to learn best. Democrats think that states need to be held accountable for providing low-income students with resources. But the GOP says that states make that decision, that the federal government shouldn't compel them. So it really is of two different questions, who gets to decide these things, and that takes us into a broader discussion about states' rights.

GREENE: So, Juana, it sounds like you're bringing up some really interesting policy questions that lawmakers are debating. You know, we have an election heating up. And oftentimes, policy debates can sort of fall apart at the will of politics, and you actually don't ever get a law passed. Is that what might happen here?

SUMMERS: That really could happen here, especially as you have a number of lawmakers in the Senate running for president. And to top it all off, we're just getting started on this debate, and the White House has already said that it doesn't support either of these bills in the current form and, in fact, could veto them. We heard from Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Monday. He said that the Senate bill is missing key pieces as it currently stands. And as for the Republican bill in the House, he said it's a major step backward for children in this country. So just about everyone agrees that No Child Left Behind needs to be scrapped and fixed, but there's still not really a clear path as to how to do that.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Juana Summers covers Congress for us. Juana, thanks as always.

SUMMERS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.