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House Republicans Likely to Write Own NCLB Bill

By Alyson Klein — December 16, 2011 3 min read
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GOP lawmakers on the House education committee are likely to write a Republican-only version of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said today that the committee has been working for months on a bipartisan rewrite of the law, but lawmakers haven’t been able to reach agreement.

Here’s his statement:

Since the start of the 112th Congress, education reform has been a top priority for the committee and my Republican colleagues. We convened 11 hearings and invited dozens of witnesses to describe the challenges and opportunities facing the nation's schools. My colleagues and I also spent months engaged in bipartisan talks on the way forward for reform of the elementary and secondary education act. There were several areas where we forged new agreement, but others in which we ultimately could not come to a consensus. The urgency to reform the law has not changed. I look forward to a robust debate once legislation is introduced in the coming weeks.

A Republican only bill is a big departure from the way that ESEA reauthorization is typically crafted—it’s one of the few bills that is almost always bipartisan. In fact, the currrent version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act, passed by overwhelming bipartisan margins back in 2001.

Kline and Rep. George Miller, of California, the top Democrat, had been talking about a bipartisan approach this time around. But it looks like the two sides are just too far apart to go that way when it comes to sticky issues at the heart of the law, such as accountability, advocates said.

The House education committee, which is breaking up the renewal into bite-sized pieces, has a mixed record so far when it comes to bipartisanship. The panel was able to craft a bipartisan bill on charter schools. But two other pieces of legislation, one offering districts funding flexibility and another eliminating more than 40 programs, were only supported by GOP lawmakers.

A partisan ESEA bill in the House would be a big deal, because it would dim the chances that reauthorization would get done before the end of President Barack Obama’s first term.

For one thing, further Senate action may depend on the House. U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee, which passed its own version of the ESEA renewal earlier this year with some Republican support, has said he won’t seek to advance the bill until the House approves a bipartisan product.

In fact, here’s what Harkin had to say about the House’s inclination to do a GOP bill:

Given that the HELP Committee was able to come to bipartisan agreement on a strong bill to reauthorize ESEA, I sincerely hope Chairman Kline will reconsider his decision to not pursue a bipartisan bill. There is widespread agreement that No Child Left Behind needs to be fixed for the sake of our nation's children, and I hope we will not abandon the longstanding tradition of bipartisanship when it comes to the education of our kids. Without a bipartisan bill coming out of the House, I believe it would be difficult to find a path forward that will draw the support we need from both sides of the aisle to be able to send a final bill to the President that advances education for America's students.

For another thing, at least until after the election, the finished ESEA product will need to get through the Republican House, the Democratic Senate, and be signed by President Obama to become law.

If Congress can’t get its act together, the administration’s waivers will become the main vehicle for fixing the controversial law. And the waivers themselves have faced a lot of pushback on Capitol Hill.

Miller, for one, is not very happy about the partisan direction. Here’s a statement from him:

I have communicated to Chairman Kline my disappointment that he has chosen to go the partisan route. Partisanship means the end to NCLB reform in this Congress. Bipartisanship is the only successful way forward. The Senate has moved a bipartisan bill out of committee. The House could do the same if it had the political will to do so. Our nation's children deserve a real process for achieving consensus, not partisan political games.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also said a GOP-only bill isn’t the way to go.

Education reform requires all of us - parents, teachers, students, and elected officials from both sides of the aisle - to come together and do the right thing for kids. Our children only have one shot at a good education, so it's disappointing to hear that some Members of Congress may let partisan politics stand in the way.

And some advocates are weighing in.

“We are sad and disappointed,” said Kate Tromble, the director of legislative affairs for the Education Trust, which advocates for poor and minority kids. “ESEA has always been bipartisan. Moving forward in a partisan direction breaks with all tradition.”

UPDATE: A Senate Republican aide pointed out that, while ESEA has always been bipartisan, the measure hasn’t always garnered the overwhelming support NCLB did back in 2001. For instance, in 1994, an renewal bill was approved in the House that had the support of most Democrats and 45 Republicans. But 124 GOP lawmakers voted no. Here’s the vote.

“That’s hardly some grand bipartisan victory of process,” the aide said. “Who’s to say that a partisan bill that moves through the House under Republicans couldn’t garner similar levels of Democrat support?”

That certainly seems possible in this case. During consideration of the Senate’s ESEA measure, GOP lawmakers found common ground with Democrats (and the National Education Association) on issues including giving states more leeway in turning around their lowest performing schools, and teacher evaluation. Similar dynamics could emerge in the House.

But, at the same time, party members often defer to the ranking member on a committee. So getting Democratic support could be tougher if Miller really doesn’t like what Kline puts forward. Should be interesting to watch.