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Momentum Building on ESEA Renewal?

By Alyson Klein — January 12, 2011 3 min read
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Rumor has it that the president is going to make a big push for renewing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in his State of the Union address to the newly divided Congress, slated for Jan. 25.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Senate, Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, is aiming for the panel to consider a bill by Easter, and then bring the measure to the floor in late spring or early summer, according to Justine Sessions, a spokeswoman for the committee.

Can the bill actually get done this year, before the 2012 presidential election campaign complicates matters? The current version of the ESEA law, the No Child Left Behind Act, was up for renewal four years ago, and so far neither committee has introduced a reauthorization bill, so obviously this isn’t easy.

But some advocates say the difference this time may be White House involvement. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been tirelessly working on Hill outreach for the past year or more, but things may be different coming directly from the president himself. After all, President George W. Bush’s involvement is part of what made it possible to get NCLB done in the first place.

Last year, even though the Obama administration put forth a blueprint on ESEA, officials focused most of their legislative efforts on health care overhaul. Now the White House is prepared to make ESEA a top legislative priority and to help sway Republican committee members, advocates say.

There are a number of GOP folks on the committee who share at least some common ground with the administration on K-12 issues, including Sens. Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, and Richard Burr, of North Carolina, and possibly Sen. Mike Enzi, the top Republican on the panel. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, who was on the committee last year, has shown a new tendency to buck her party and got a lot of help from the National Education Association in her successful write-in campaign.

Having the full force of the White House behind reauthorization could make all the difference, advocates say. One heartening sign: Republicans haven’t been overly critical of the reforms that the administration has emphasized through the economic-stimulus program, which include money for states to work together on more uniform, rigorous assessments, as well as pushing merit pay and charters through Race to the Top.

Over on the House side, Rep. John Kline is considering moving smaller, more targeted bills that deal with particular issues at the heart of the law, as opposed to a broad reauthorization, partly because Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the new speaker of the House of Representatives and a former chairman of the education committee, has signaled that he doesn’t favor large, complicated bills in which major policy changes may not get the sort of debate and attention they need.

And the newly-minted chairman of the subcommittee that oversees K-12 education, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., expressed optimism on reauthorization in today’s Washington Post.

Some folks have suggested that the recent shootings in Arizona may encourage lawmakers to come together, and what better issue than something feel-good, like education?

All this ignores one important factor, though: The biggest obstacle to renewal isn’t necessarily a big clash of ideas between Republicans and Democrats. It could just as easily be the deep intraparty divisions, particularly within the Democratic Party, on just where to take the law when it comes to sticky issues like accountability, teacher performance pay, evaluation, tenure, and how best to turn around low-performing schools. More reality check at Eduwonk.