Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged an overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act on Wednesday, garnering a warm reception on Capitol Hill that was in marked contrast to the vitriolic battle over health care.
"We all recognize that NCLB had its flaws," Duncan said in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, one of two appearances on Capitol Hill. "The time to fix those problems is now."
Duncan's appearance came several days after President Obama made reform of the Elementary and Secondary Eduction Act the centerpiece of last Saturday's weekly radio address. In the speech, the president tied education to prosperity, and said that the plan for overhauling No Child Left Behind will set a new goal of preparing all high school graduates for college and the workplace.
The administration sent the plan to Capitol Hill on Monday, and Duncan discussed the details in a conference call with reporters. While lawmakers questioned Duncan closely, he generally received a warm reception from both Democrats and Republicans, illustrating Duncan's high regard among members of both parties as well as the unpopularity of No Child Left Behind, which is a source of bipartisan criticism.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who has been sharply critical of the administration on other issues, said he appreciated Duncan's work with both parties -- despite some differences -- and called the blueprint "an excellent beginning" for overhauling the law.
In his testimony, Duncan said there was an urgent need to fix the accountability systems of No Child Left Behind, saying "there are far too many perverse incentives in the current law."
"It allows and even actually encourages states to lower standards," he said. "It doesn't measure growth, it doesn't reward excellence. It prescribes the same intervention for schools with very, very different needs. It encourages a narrowing of the curriculum and focuses on test preparation."
Despite wide agreement that No Child Left Behind needs to be revamped, Senators did raise concerns about the administration plan. Sen. Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, questioned Duncan about "this vast increase in the federal role" in schools, and in his statement, its implementation in rural areas.
"I appreciate that the blueprint tries to recognize the unique nature of rural schools and districts," he said. "However, despite these good efforts I will continue to focus on where additional adjustments may be needed."