Much School Work Left For Congress to Do
Congress returned from its summer recess a few months ago facing a slate of major education bills with high hopes of completing work on most or all of them. When lawmakers reconvene in January, despite a brief session scheduled for this week, they are likely to face the same list of uncompleted education business.
That list includes bills reauthorizing Head Start, which offers services to about one million poor children in preparation for school; the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which guarantees the rights of a free, appropriate public education to the nation's 6.5 million public school students with disabilities; and the Higher Education Act, the main federal law on student financial aid and other programs for colleges and universities.
Meanwhile, in its crunch to pass a Medicare bill, among other things, Congress recessed before Thanksgiving without taking a final vote on an omnibus $328 billion spending plan that includes the budget for the Department of Education. Members of the House of Representatives were expected to return Dec. 8 to vote on that bill, which also contains language establishing a $13 million private school voucher experiment for the District of Columbia ("Agreement Reached on Education Spending," Dec. 3, 2003.)
No Bark Heard
The Senate was expected to return Dec. 9 for a vote on the budget bill, but that remained uncertain late last week because at least one senator said he would use a procedural maneuver to block the vote.
Education experts and political observers say that education may have taken a backseat in Congress this fall because lawmakers are gun-shy thanks to controversy over the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
"Education was the dog that didn't bark in Congress," said Jack Jennings, the executive director of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy, in Washington, and a former longtime aide to Democrats on the House education committee. "The No Child Left Behind Act is a major motivating force in national education policy now. Conflict over the law is complicating things."
The school improvement law is having a ripple effect on all education debates in Congress, Mr. Jennings said. For example, in the consideration of the IDEA reauthorization, lawmakers are debating what constitutes a "highly qualified" special education teacher. The No Child Left Behind Act requires that states put a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom in a core subject by the end of the 2005-06 school year. Lawmakers differ on whether special education teachers should be certified not only in special education but in any core subjects they teach. And on the Head Start front, the Bush administration is calling for more academic content in the performance criteria of programs.
Other political observers charge that the Bush administration feels no urgency to take on other education initiatives, viewing the No Child Left Behind Act as its crown jewel. President Bush wants to make a mark in other policy arenas, they said.
"Having scored his big touchdown in 2001, and identifying himself as a president who favors education reform, he probably doesn't see any political advantage in doing more," said Norman J. Ornstein, a senior scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. "He only sees pitfalls, given the funding problems"
Getting Things Done
Regardless of the administration's intentions, the timing of the major reauthorizations is set in law, and one—the IDEAhas been overdue since 2002. Some observers suggest that lawmakers simply ran out of time to take on the major education initiatives.
"Passing a gargantuan Medicare bill ties up time a little bit," said Justin Torres, a research director at the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. "When you look at higher education and IDEA, there are enormous complications with each bill."
The House passed its Head Start bill in July, but the Senate has not yet passed its version of the law, which expires this year. The House passed its version of the IDEA reauthorization in late April, but the Senate hasn't gotten to that, either. On the Higher Education Act, set to expire next year, Congress has started to debate the issues, but neither chamber has passed any bills.
Alexa Marrero, a spokeswoman for the Republicans on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce defended the House's record on education.
"We followed through on passing special education, D.C. choice, and Head Start bills," she said.
Joshua Shields, a spokesman for the Republicans on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said he thinks Congress is on track for education.
"The committee ... has successfully produced bipartisan bills to reauthorize Head Start and IDEA this year," Mr. Shields said. "Both of these bills are ready for action on the Senate floor when the Senate convenes in January."
But, with an election year approaching, lawmakers may want to avoid acting on more divisive education issues, observers say.
"These are controversial issues," said Christopher T. Cross, a consultant to the Center on Education Policy, who has written a new book on the federal role in K-12 education. "They are not without significant baggage. In a time before an election eleven months away, I don't believe there is a lot of enthusiasm. I wouldn't be surprised if little gets done before they adjourn next year."