Education in the United States is primarily the responsibility of local and state governments. But the federal government does influence education policy. Under the Bush Administration, that policy is known as No Child Left Behind.
The American taxpayer spends more than $500 billion per year to educate the nation's children. The federal government currently provides about 9 percent of that huge sum, for what Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings calls "the neediest students." "Poor kids, minority kids, special education students. That," Spellings says, "is what No Child Left Behind is about."
President Bush modeled his No Child Left Behind initiative, which Congress passed into law in 2002, after a similar program he instituted years ago, as Texas governor, to make education in his state more "businesslike." The law requires states "to set clear standards and hold schools accountable for teaching every child to read and do math at grade level."
Under the federal initiative, every publicly-funded school must regularly test students' math and reading skills. Those test scores are used to determine whether schools have met their standards.
Schools that fail to do so and show no signs of improvement from one year to the next face severe consequences, including, ultimately, the firing of the entire teaching staff and even the closing of the school.
That process is going on right now in Washington, D.C., where chancellor Michelle Rhee announced she would close 23 schools before the next academic year begins in the autumn.
There have been loud protests, but in a hearing on Capitol Hill, Rhee said the issues critics have raised were not taking the children's rights into account and were focused instead on adults.
"You know, job security and fairness and due process," Rhee told Congress. "The bottom line is the kids don't have due process. When you're a kid in D.C. public schools and you don't get the education you deserve in any given year - and that's the vast majority of our kids - you can't come into a city council meeting and get your parents' money back for that year."
Rhee asked Congress to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, or NCLB. "Do not water down NCLB. It is actually having an impact."
But Robert Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or Fair Test, says the law is not having a positive impact.
"No Child Left Behind is a test-and-punish scheme that fails to deal with real problems in schools," Schaeffer says, adding it "ends up dumbing down educational quality."
He says NCLB lowers educational quality by focusing not only on a limited set of skills, but on a single test of those skills.
Schaeffer says Fair Test and more than 140 other organizations that belong to the Forum on Educational Accountability would like to see schools use multiple measures to assess schools. "So tests, portfolios, graduation rates, other reviews of school quality would come together to reach a judgment."
But Secretary Spellings disagrees, at least when it comes to determining where federal money for education should go. "If you have a curriculum that is sound and a measurement system that is aligned to it, then you want to teach to the test," Spellings says.
The Secretary also takes issue with those who disagree with the law's focus on reading and math skills at the expense of other areas. "I would suggest that without skills in those areas it is really hard to learn social studies or philosophy."
Schaeffer also finds fault with the law's failure to look at the many factors that may cause children to do poorly on exams.
"No Child Left Behind assumes that the sole cause of poor academic achievement happens in the classroom," he says. "Too many low-income kids come to school not ready to learn because of poverty and other factors that make it so difficult to learn no matter how good our schools are.
Schaeffer says addressing some of those factors may require special programs that aren't usually associated with education. "Such as better nutrition programs, (free or low-cost) breakfast and lunch, dental, and eye care, so students have the capacity to learn."
Schaeffer says good teachers are fleeing schools labeled as failures - most often those in low-income neighborhoods - and will continue to do so if teachers alone are held accountable for students who perform poorly.
Other concerns regarding No Child Left Behind include a lack of consistency regarding proficiency levels and testing methods from state to state. The law allows each state to set its own standards. Schaffer says, "Some states have set them quite low and continue to offer very poor education across the board. Others have set them very high and end up declaring decent schools failures."
States aren't likely to allow the government to set standards for them any time soon.
As for the future of No Child Left Behind, both Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, say they will scrap the law if elected. Republican candidate John McCain says the law needs improvements, but shouldn't be discarded.