Education Commentary

Even Education Legislation Grinds to a Halt

By Jay Urwitz — September 21, 2004 5 min read
There is no longer a bipartisan consensus that, whatever else is in the air, education legislation is above it.

Nowhere is the paralysis that is Washington today more exposed than in the snap of what had been a continuing chain of education authorizations. There is no longer a bipartisan consensus that, whatever else is in the air, education legislation is above it. As Congress comes to a close, the list of education bills which have run out or are about to do so is a “Who’s Who” of legislation once considered “must pass.” Indeed, since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, Congress has enacted ... nothing.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, due to be reauthorized two years ago, provides the funding and structure for special education. Head Start, the Higher Education Act, the Workforce Investment Act, the Perkins Vocational Education Act—all are due. None has been enacted. The only education act reauthorized has been the minor Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002.

This is a complete change from the history of the last several decades, when Congress regularly passed and regularly expanded education legislation, no matter who was in the White House or who controlled the Congress. While authorizations would sometimes slip for scheduling or tactical reasons, no one doubted they would pass. Now, instead, we face the genuine prospect that many major bills will languish for years without being reauthorized.

Why is this happening, and what are the consequences?

There are substantive and some ideological divides between the legislation passed in the House and that passed out of the education committee in the Senate or the Senate itself. But Congress has bridged gulfs of this magnitude before.

Instead, two other paste pots have been thrown into this machine: lack of trust and lack of money.

Democrats in Congress don’t trust the Republicans who control each house when they get to conference, or the administration that implements the law. They fear that some of the conservative agenda in education will slip into the proposed law that comes back from a House-Senate conference, even if it wasn’t included in either bill: There will be a bigger “pilot program” for special education vouchers; or greater control over Head Start programs will be given to the states; colleges will be forced to report on pricing and could ultimately face sanctions for substantial increases.

This happened with the Medicare drug-benefit bill last year. Programs in neither the Senate nor House bills were included in conference. Once bills are reported out of conference, they are much harder to stop when they get back to the House and Senate floors. The Democrats are not going to let that happen again.

Democrats also fear how the bills will be implemented, most especially at the Department of Education. The Bush administration has a much more active education philosophy than has any previous Republican administration. This was demonstrated in curriculum and accountability choices the department made for the No Child Left Behind law, and each new authorization gives the administration a crack at imposing a philosophy for other education programs.

Democrats, and many interest groups, also think there is far too little money being made available for these programs. One of the biggest reasons for reauthorizing a program is to raise the amounts that the government is authorized to spend on them. If the government is not going to raise funding substantially, there is no point in raising the ceiling.

Democrats feel especially aggrieved at funding for the No Child Left Behind law, believing that if school systems are to be held to strict accountability, then they and the children in them should be given a fighting chance through much more assistance. Budget requests from the administration and the appropriations that the Republican-controlled Congress has passed have grown significantly for some programs but little for others. And, in all cases, the increases have not reached what Democrats and many major education groups consider necessary.

Given the potential for changes “outside the box” in conference, and in implementation after passage, and given the lack of potential for healthy budget increases, many Democrats and others in the education community are simply a lot more cautious about moving forward.

Republicans, for their part, do not see the strong need to reauthorize legislation if it does not contain changes they want to make. But many also believe that they did not get the positive response they expected to the No Child Left Behind legislation and are leery about the reaction they’ll get to the changes they’d like in other legislation.

Where will it end?

The dynamic will change if at least one of the three relevant power centers—the presidency, the House, or the Senate—goes Democratic, but not all three. Then, both parties can be assured that nothing radical will happen in conference, or, if it does, that the legislation won’t get signed. Democratic control of at least one side of the triangle is also likely to increase education funding. So, divided government in this case is more likely to be productive government. Go figure.

If the government is not going to raise funding substantially, there is no point in raising the ceiling.

If the triangle stays red all around (or in the less likely event that it goes blue all around), the future may be murkier. Some legislation is likely to get through, because of the need for structural reform or because the funding amounts will start bumping up against the existing limits. For example, there is a lot of impetus for a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, to increase scholarship and loan funding, to eliminate constraints on distance education, and for many other reasons.

But other legislation could languish for years, outmoded but better than the prospects feared by one group or another with the power to stop it. Consider the reauthorization of the IDEA. Republicans have been concerned about Democratic funding demands, and Democrats about changes in disciplinary rules and procedures. If such concerns stop reauthorization, the programs would chafe under strictures and goals that no longer fit the needs of the students in the program, or the accountability vehicles now available, or the changes in delivery allowed by technology. The legislation passed by the House and the Senate aggressively focuses on overinclusion of minorities. But the processes that the legislation seeks to put in place may not be implemented without the new legislation.

The need to update Head Start is even greater. Both the House and the Senate moved the program from one whose basic concern is socialization to one that puts much greater priority on developing preliteracy skills. Each also calls, in slightly different ways, for requiring substantially greater professional development for the teachers and assistants who work with the children. By most accounts, Head Start is further away from reauthorization than is the IDEA.

While there may be a number of different strategies that the education community could employ to move legislation, the first step is to realize the degree to which the consensus that education legislation must move has broken down. No longer can the education community simply depend on an exemption from partisan politics.