Washoe County School Superintendent Jim Hager has tested the No Child Left Behind Act for two years and says it gets a failing grade.
Hager said the law is clumsy and produces a defeatist attitude among teachers and principals.
He said the law's main premise is that all students in all districts must show annual yearly progress in math, English and eventually science by the 2014.
"While I think the goal is very laudable, there has to be some realism put into it," said Hager, a former high school dropout who went on to oversee about 60,000 students in the nation's 51st largest school district.
"Not all the kids are going to get there in that time," Hager told the Reno Gazette-Journal. "The kids are not coming into schools on a level playing field, either because of handicapping conditions, language barriers or exposure to experiences due to socio-economics."
Many in Washoe County's teaching community have become demoralized while trying to meet the many requirements of the federal mandate, signed into law two years ago by President Bush, Hager said.
"We took a voluntary survey of our principals and what they told me was: `Look at all the reporting and all the paperwork we have to do. We don't look at the total child anymore. We're looking at, "Did we make our numbers?"' So I think it has changed our demeanor for the worse."
Many teachers agree, said Lynn Warne, the president of the Washoe Education Association. The mandate has had a profound effect on early retirement of teachers, said Warne, whose group represents teachers in contract talks.
"This year, there are more than 80 teachers who are going to retire early," Warne said. "That is more than double the number of teachers we have ever had do that before. I know several of them, and they have told me that it is because of the additional stress of meeting this annual yearly progress."
Those concerns are shared by Congress, said U.S. Rep. Jim Gibbons.
"First of all, we set the goal high (at 100 percent) so that we could get our schools to do the very best to get to that 100 percent level," said Gibbons, R-Nev. "If we set it at 50 percent, for example, we would be failing 50 percent of our children.
"We will continue to modify the bill, but the goal should remain that we get as many children up to those expectations as we can," he said.
Until then, Washoe County must follow the law or risk losing much of its federal funding. The U.S. Department of Education provides $15 million to $18 million a year to finance the district's school lunch programs, special education and increased aid for poverty-level schools.
"We have very strong marching orders from the federal government," Hager said.