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'No Child Left Behind' losing steam

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Support for No Child Left Behind – President Bush's signature education reform – is fraying as it heads into reauthorization this year.

The heaviest criticism is coming from within his own party. Conservative Republicans in the House and Senate introduced bills last week that allow states to opt out of most of the law's requirements, while keeping federal funding. Backers of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) say that move would gut the law.

Even supporters say that changes are needed.

"This is a critical year. It's very important that we perfect and tweak NCLB as we move forward," US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings told urban school leaders in Washington this week. "There are lots of forces aligning on both sides of the poles to unravel or unwind NCLB, but I don't think that's going to happen," she told the Council of the Great City Schools.

At the heart of this sweeping education reform is a mandate that states annually test students in Grades 3 through 8 in reading and math. Schools that fail to show "adequate yearly progress" in student achievement face sanctions ranging from cuts in federal funding to a requirement to shut down.

The reform passed Congress with big bipartisan majorities in 2001. But problems in implementing NCLB have spawned criticism from principals, teachers, parents, education groups, and across the political spectrum.

Doubts loom especially large for GOP conservatives, who swept into power in the House in 1995 on a promise to reduce the size of the federal government and abolish the US Department of Education.

"It's pretty obvious that the consensus that led to [NCLB] six years ago is unraveling," says Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a former Reagan-era education official. "How badly it unravels over what period of time is what we don't know yet."

Democrats want more federal funding

Democrats, who now control both the House and Senate, say that they initially supported NCLB on the promise that federal funding would give schools the resources they needed to implement the new law. While federal funding for public schools has increased by a third since the law was enacted, it still has been underfunded by some $70.9 billion, below levels authorized by law, say critics ranging from top Democrats to education associations and teachers unions.

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