'No Child' Law on Track, Spellings Says

By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 4, 2007

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said yesterday that she welcomed proposals to "perfect and tweak" the No Child Left Behind law as Congress prepares for what could become a divisive debate on renewal of the landmark education initiative.

But in an interview five days before the act's fifth anniversary, Spellings said its implementation was on track. She rejected calls for a major rewrite of the law, including some proposals advanced yesterday by a coalition of about 100 groups with a stake in education.

"We've made more progress in the last five years than the previous 28 years," Spellings said. "Can the law be improved? Should we build on what we've done and all of that sort of thing? You bet. But I don't hear people saying: 'You know what? We really don't need to have education for all students.' "

Her remarks come as various groups begin to weigh in on the law and what they believe works and what does not. The No Child Left Behind law is scheduled to be reauthorized by Congress, but it is uncertain when lawmakers will act.

The Forum on Educational Accountability -- a coalition that includes education, religious, civil rights and disability rights groups -- said yesterday that the law overemphasizes standardized tests and arbitrary academic targets. The coalition also criticized penalties the law imposes on schools that fail to meet standards.

"We don't have to throw out the whole law and make a big political battle," said Reginald M Felton, a senior lobbyist for the National School Boards Association, a member of the coalition. "But we need to change from the punitive, 'gotcha!' kind of approach to actual support for progress."

The coalition includes the National Parent Teacher Association, the NAACP and the National Education Association, a teachers union. The coalition has called for more federal education funding to help schools meet the law's mandates.

Spellings said the past five years have laid the foundation for the law's key goal of ensuring that every child can read and write at grade level by 2014. Under the law, states must test all students in reading and math from grades 3 to 8 and once in high school. Schools that fail to make adequate progress face a range of penalties.

The Bush administration has granted some states flexibility in how they carry out the law. For example, North Carolina and Tennessee are experimenting with a way to rate schools that emphasizes the year-to-year academic growth of students rather than how scores compare with fixed benchmarks.

"Have we learned something as we've made public policy for the last five years that we ought to act on going forward? Absolutely," Spellings said. "And I've done some of those things."

She added, "Those are some of the areas that ought to be discussed in the context of reauthorization."

The law, which passed Congress in 2001 with overwhelming bipartisan support, was signed by President Bush on Jan. 8, 2002.

Yesterday, Spellings lauded the incoming education committee chairmen, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), as "stalwarts" who have "stayed very true to the core principles of this law."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company