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Five Questions as NCLB Reauthorization Moves Forward

By Alyson Klein — June 14, 2013 4 min read
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Well, forwardish. There’s going to be a lot more action in Congress this year than we’ve seen at any time since way back in 2001, when the No Child Left Behind Act passed and George W. Bush was president and “Friends” was the hottest sitcom and no one was tweeting NCLB markups because Twitter wouldn’t be invented for five more years.

Of course, all this action action probably won’t result in a brand new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year, but it will set the stage for whatever comes next.

So pay close attention to these questions:

1. How much does President Barack Obama actually want this reauthorization to happen right now? The bill that just passed the Senate education committee with only support from Democrats is about as close to the administration’s vision as anything that we’ve seen in Congress so far ... but the president, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan haven’t exactly been rushing for the cheerleading pom-poms, at least publicly. Duncan didn’t even bother to send a press release out after the bill passed. Instead, he’s been focusing on the president’s early-childhood initiative, which probably has even less of a shot in a tight-fisted Congress than ESEA. Maybe Duncan just got frustrated with the partisan deadlock in Congress and wants to give the waivers—which, after all, he got to come up with totally on his own, with no lawmaker sign-off—a little more time to take hold? But the administration will need some kind of K-12 legislation in place before it leaves office,otherwise everything it’s accomplished through Race to the Top and other competitive grant programs could go up in smoke. Even a Democratic president is unlikely to adopt the Obama K-12 agenda wholesale.

2. How much does it matter that most organizations representing practioners aren’t exactly jumping for joy over these bills? Let’s start with the Senate Democrats’ vision. Of the education organizations representing practioners, only the American Federation of Teachers has put out a resoundlingly positive statement. The National Education Association’s letter was carefully neutral. And so were letters from the American Association of School Administrators and the Council of the Great City Schools. The Council of Chief State School Officers—which would really like reauthorization to happen sooner rather than later—is also netural, on both the Harkin and Kline bills. The civil rights community was happy with the Harkin bill, but not ecstatic with it. Only the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights seems to have given a full fledged endorsement. More on who likes that bill here.

Now for the House legislation. The civil rights community hates it. The Chamber of Commerce hated it last time and doesn’t seem likely to change its mind. AASA and NSBA endorsed a very similar Kline bill last time, but if vouchers become a part of this one (see below) it might be tough for them to stay on board.

3. What happens with school choice proposals on the floor of the House? The House committee markup next Wednesday is just the opening act this year—the bill is actually going to the floor, likely before the August recess. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the House Majority Leader may offer an amendment during floor debate that would allow parents to take federal Title I dollars to a private school of their choice, advocates say. Cantor’s office wasn’t ready to confirm that, but it’s certainty something he’s been talking about. And Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is getting in on the K-12 act. His staff met with a whole cadre of K-12 groups recently to discuss school choice, and even wonky issues like funding flexiblity. Here’s the problem: While school superintendents and school board members liked the last House GOP bill, it’ll be a whole new ball game if vouchers get added during floor action. The handful of education groups that were in will likely jump right out. And it would also make the legislation way easier for Democrats to oppose...which leads me to our next question...

4. The bill is supposed to go to the floor of the House. But will House leaders actually be able to muscle it through? The Workforce Investment Act barely squeaked through the House earlier this year, thanks to Democratic and conservative opposition. There are going to be some conservatives who will vote against any bill that keeps the Department of Education’s doors open. Do vouchers help or hurt the bill’s chances of getting through the House?

5. Is the Senate bill going to the floor or what? Sen. Tom Harkin, the committee’s chairman, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, the top Republican, both want to see this legislation move forward. And they both want a robust amendment process, where any lawmaker can offer any amendment that’s relevant to the bill. (Sometimes senators go wild and try to put tangential amendments about, like energy, onto health care bills, so that a policy they like can hitch a ride on a moving vehicle. That can gum up the works.) An open debate on an issue everyone cares about could eat up a ton of floor time, and the schedule for this year is pretty packed. But advocate after advocate has stressed how important it is that both parties genuinely seem to want floor action in the Senate. An open process will be long and messy though (remember, NCLB took seven weeks! And this Congress has to pass immigration and lift the debt ceiling and oh yeah, pass spending bills.)

What did I miss?