Why a GOP-controlled Congress may abandon No Child Left Behind law

When Congress returns to work next week, Republicans will have substantial majorities in the House and the Senate. Republican leaders have promised they will initiate new legislation, and one of their first efforts may be to roll back parts of No Child Left Behind, the education law passed under President George W. Bush. Politico's senior education reporter, Stephanie Simon, joins Hari Sreenivasan from Boston.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:

    Congress returns to work Tuesday, and Republicans will have substantial majorities in both the House and the Senate.

    Republican leaders have promised they will initiate legislation, and one of their first efforts may be to roll back parts of No Child Left Behind, the education law passed under President George W. Bush.

    Stephanie Simon is the senior education reporter for "Politico" and joins us now from Boston.

    So, this was approved in a bipartisan manner. What's wrong now, 10, 12, years later?

  • STEPHANIE SIMON, POLITICO:

    Well, it was a very bipartisan bill as you said, had huge support. I mean, to give you some idea, Ted Kennedy and John Boehner were coauthors of it, so that gives you a hint of how widely it was approved.

    And now, 12 years later, people are looking back and thinking that there's huge problems with this bill. It mandated annual testing in reading and math for students in grades 3-8, and again in high school, and there's a huge backlash now against so much standardized testing.

    And it also set out strict sanctions for schools that did not continually improve their students' performance on those tests and that also has created a huge backlash and kind of an idea that there's too much federal interference in local schools.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And one of the critiques in between periods were that schools were trying to teach to the test just to get those numbers up, right?

  • STEPHANIE SIMON:

    Exactly, right. There were sort of two strategies. A number of states actually reduced the rigor of their test, sort of a race to the bottom to try to make the test easier so that more kids would pass them and you would look better as a state or school and want other strategy was to teach to the test and that created a narrowing of the curriculum where there was so much focus on getting those math and reading scores up that subjects like civics and social studies and science and electives like art and P.E., kind of fell by the wayside.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, what are some of the possible legislative solutions to try to roll back elements of No Child Left Behind or start from scratch?

  • STEPHANIE SIMON:

    Well, this is a gargantuan bill. It's about 600 pages. It covers about $25 billion in annual federal funding. So, it's not a small task to rewrite it.

    And really, the key question will be: how far the Republicans want to pull back from federal involvement in education policy? And, you know, the answer might seem way back, you know? It might seem obvious that they want to go as far — pull the federal government as far away as possible.

    But there's a strong appeal to many Republicans, to the Chamber of Commerce, and to many Democrats as well, to continuing to have some federal role so that states are held to account and schools are held to account for actually teaching kids and making sure that they're learning.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The annual testing that's become so contentious, it seems, though, that was one of the ways that the administration or any member of Congress could measure the disparities in outcomes that are happening throughout the United States.

  • STEPHANIE SIMON:

    Right, and that remains probably the most popular part of the bill was that not that the testing part isn't popular, but the requirement that states and schools report the results by subgroups so that you could see exactly how well or how poorly children with disabilities, children who are still learning English, children of low-income families are doing on those tests.

    And having that requirement in place was really the first time that we were able to see as a nation how poorly some of those subgroups were doing, because if you report in the aggregate, you know, it might look like you have an 80 percent pass rate and that might seem great, but that might be because 99 percent of the kids of high-income families are doing great and only 30 percent of the kids of low-income families are doing OK and that's clearly a disparity that has to be addressed.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And heading into this Congress is also making for some very strange alliances. The teachers unions are coming out really against the administration, which is not usually a position that you see.

  • STEPHANIE SIMON:

    Exactly. There's a lot of tension and strange bedfellows. The National Education Association, the biggest teachers union, has been on a campaign for over a year now against what they call toxic testing, too much testing.

    And they might find themselves aligned with Republicans who want to roll back the testing, where the administration has vowed not to do that. So, that's one strange alliance.

    The administration is also aligned with Republicans on wanting more of a roll for charter schools, and that's something that the teachers union opposes. So, there's kind of shifting alliances and it will be interesting to see how it all shakes out.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Stephanie Simon, senior education reporter for "Politico" — thanks so much.

  • STEPHANIE SIMON:

    Thank you.