The No Child Left Behind Act has been a flash point in education circles for five years, with critics saying schools have become obsessed with testing math and reading and supporters saying the law has helped prevent some students from falling through the cracks.
In the Democratic presidential primary campaign, there are more similarities than differences in the criticisms of the act made by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, both of whom are members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, which plays a key role in education legislation.
When they criticize NCLB on the campaign trail, both can count on hearty applause.
Neither quarrels with the law's intent to see that all children have a good education, but both have zeroed in on some of the common criticisms of the law -- such as the complaint that the federal government has allocated too little money to make it work and that it overemphasizes math and reading tests, causing other subjects to be neglected.
Mrs. Clinton, who voted for NCLB in 2001, has toughened her language on the law recently, moving from a pledge to "reform and fully fund" the act when she answered an American Federation of Teachers questionnaire in July to saying in recent months, as she did in Lancaster, that she will "put an end to the unfunded mandate called No Child Left Behind."
Her campaign staff says the changes she wants are so extensive that they would amount to doing away with No Child Left Behind.
Mr. Obama has suggested extensive changes as well and called for fully funding the act. In his AFT questionnaire, Mr. Obama said the law "has significant flaws that need to be addressed."
When it was approved in 2001, No Child Left Behind received widespread bipartisan support -- 87 senators and 381 representatives voted for it. President Bush signed it in 2002.
The law is up for reauthorization, but it is so controversial that a vote is unlikely until after the presidential campaign is over.
No Child Left Behind requires all public school students to take state standardized tests in math and reading in grades 3 through 8 and once again in high school, prompting critics to dub it "No Test Left Behind." The required test outcomes gradually increase until all students score at least proficient on state tests by 2014.
Schools deemed not to be making adequate yearly progress -- for students as a whole or for a measurable subgroup of students, such as low-income or special education students -- face sanctions.
When President Bush signed the act into law, Mrs. Clinton's office issued a press release crediting her with writing provisions to promote the recruitment of high quality teachers and principals.
The statement said the act would provide significant new money for education, including nearly $176 million in new education funds for New York City alone.
"The education funding included in the bill could not come at a better time for hard-pressed school districts throughout New York," she said in a prepared statement at the time.
However, less money came through than she expected. In January last year, Mrs. Clinton's office issued a news release saying that New York state alone had received $6.7 billion less than promised under the law.
In the release, Mrs. Clinton said a lot had been learned over five years and pledged to try to improve "accountability and standards in education, particularly in math and science, increase quality and professional development for teachers and principals, [and] improve instruction for English language learners."
Her campaign remarks have focused on criticisms of the tests.
When she answered the AFT's question on No Child Left Behind in July, she said, "I will work to reduce the teaching to the test and bring back a well-rounded curriculum and change the one-size-fits-all approach to addressing the challenges facing struggling schools."
Mr. Obama joined the Senate in 2005, three years after No Child Left Behind was signed.
Speaking to the National Education Association, another teacher union, in July, Mr. Obama called No Child Left Behind "one of the emptiest slogans in the history of American politics."
He said the law left the money and common sense behind.
He also has criticized the tests.
In a CNN-sponsored debate in Texas in February, Mr. Obama said, "One of the failures of No Child Left Behind, a law that I think a lot of local and state officials have been troubled by, is that it is so narrowly focused on standardized tests that it has pushed out a lot of important learning that needs to take place."
In his answers to the AFT, Mr. Obama said too much time is spent "preparing students for tests that do not provide any valuable, timely feedback on how to improve a student's learning. Creativity has been drained from classrooms as too many teachers are forced to teach fill-in-the-bubble tests."
He said teachers should be able to teach a rich curriculum rather than teach to a once-a-year test. He favors tests that measure progress as students go along.
Neither candidate is suggesting that changing No Child Left Behind constitutes a complete education strategy. Their plans cover a wide array of education issues. On many of them, the two candidates' views also are more similar than dissimilar.
Both are strong supporters of early childhood education. Mrs. Clinton proposed spending $10 billion in matching funds to states to expand access to pre-kindergarten programs. Mr. Obama included expanded pre-K in his $18 billion education plan.
Both want to encourage high quality teachers in the classroom.
Both have spoken against vouchers and say there is no evidence they improve education.
Controversy, however, was generated by some who saw an opening for vouchers in Mr. Obama's answers to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board questions in February.
Vouchers are a hot-button issue, especially with teacher unions, which generally oppose them.
Mr. Obama said that he has been a "skeptic" of school vouchers, saying they wouldn't generate the necessary supply of high-quality schools.
He noted that there were not even studies of the value of the long-standing voucher program in Milwaukee.
Asked if a longitudinal study now underway in Milwaukee ultimately showed that vouchers were beneficial, he replied that was a "loaded question," adding: "What I don't want to do is start saying if the study shows it works, I'm all for it."
He said he would have to find out if the study were legitimate and whether it considered whether voucher parents were more attentive than other parents, adding: "Here's what I'll say: I will not allow my predispositions to stand in the way of making sure our kids can learn. We're losing several generations of kids and something has to be done."
In her answer to the Milwaukee newspaper, Mrs. Clinton said she would be open to new evidence, but she thought vouchers would be hard to implement because some might want vouchers for schools of the "church of white supremacy" or jihad schools.
She said she would be "open" to any evidence because she is an "evidence-based decision-maker," but she said, "I have never been able to get over the problems I think would be caused if vouchers were widely implemented."
The two candidates differ on another hot-button issue, performance pay for teachers.
Mrs. Clinton has opposed merit pay for individual teachers but favors merit pay that would go to all staff members -- including custodians -- in a successful school.
Mr. Obama told the NEA that teacher salaries need to be raised across the board and complimented the work teachers and the governor in Minnesota did to craft an incentive pay system.
Both favor charter schools and school choice.
Mr. Obama's two daughters, Malia, 9, and Sasha, 6, attend a private school, the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. His wife, Michelle, is a vice president at the University of Chicago.
Mrs. Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, is a graduate of a private school, Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., and previously attended a public elementary school in Little Rock, Ark.
The National Education Association has not endorsed a candidate. The American Federation of Teachers in October endorsed Mrs. Clinton, citing her stand on a wide range of issues.
Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1955.