Time Grows Short on ESEA Renewal

By Erik W. Robelen — May 31, 2000 8 min read
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If the effort to reauthorize the nation’s main K-12 education law were a patient, it would be in critical condition.

That was one of the more popular metaphors offered last week to convey the increasing likelihood that Congress will fail to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act for the first time since the law’s inception 35 years ago. Many observers are beginning to believe that Congress may not even send a bill to the president’s desk this year, but that it will just fade away.

“If it’s not dead, it’s on life support and there’s no doctor around,” said a House Democratic aide, requesting anonymity.

“It’s going out with a whimper rather than a bang,” said Joel Packer, a senior lobbyist for the National Education Association.

A deadlock over the ESEA would not create a crisis for schools, as Congress would simply extend the current programs for another year under the terms of the most recent reauthorization in 1994.

But it would frustrate, at least for a while, the efforts of both parties to modify the law, which provides billions in school aid each year for a range of programs to help disadvantaged students, improve teacher quality, and support bilingual education and after-school initiatives, among other things.

Republicans, in particular, are hoping to make the law much more flexible, while Democrats want to support some key priorities, such as class-size reduction and school modernization. And both parties talk about demanding more accountability from states and districts.

There are several reasons for the pessimism on Capitol Hill: Time is getting tight in the congressional calendar; neither chamber has completed work on the legislation; and even if they do, the bills as drafted are destined for a veto by President Clinton. On top of that, the election campaign is heating up, making it doubly difficult for the two parties to work in a bipartisan fashion. Add in a pinch of gun control, which Democrats want to attach to the bill over strong GOP opposition, and it’s a recipe for an ESEA stalemate.

Clock Is Ticking

Not everyone is willing to sound the law’s death knell just yet.

“It’s going to be very difficult ... but we’re optimistic that something can be worked out,” said Vic Klatt, the education policy coordinator for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Mr. Klatt is leaving the committee to work at a Washington lobbying firm in June, though he stressed that his move should not be interpreted as a signal of the reauthorization’s prospects.

But if recent inaction by Congress is any indication, momentum has certainly dwindled.

The Senate spent six days in early May debating the ESEA, but the Republican bill has not seen the light of day since May 9, when Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said he was temporarily pulling it from the floor so other legislation could be considered.

Since then, the dispute over whether to allow a gun debate has been a major obstacle to bringing the bill back to the floor.

In an interview last week, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., argued that Democrats’ insistence on offering amendments not directly germane to the ESEA has imperiled the bill. “Republicans are willing to go forward on a bill that is focused on education,” he said. “We’re not the ones that are stopping this.”

But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, took to the floor last week to charge that Republicans are to blame by refusing to resume the floor debate. “I don’t believe the American people want us to stonewall on the issue of education,” he said. “I don’t think they want the Senate gagged from having a full debate, discussion, and action.

“Time is another problem. Gun control aside, Democrats and Republicans have a long list of education amendments they may try to offer. Each one could take hours of floor time, an increasingly precious commodity as the weeks roll on and the Senate needs to pass a series of spending bills to keep the government running. Sen. Lott and Democratic leaders talked briefly on the Senate floor late last week about resuming the ESEA debate with limited time and amendments, but could not agree on a list.

Meanwhile, the House education committee, which opted to break up the reauthorization into six bills, approved the final piece on a party-line vote April 13, but the GOP leadership has yet to schedule floor time in the full House. As in the Senate, proposed gun-control amendments appear to be a major sticking point to moving forward.

Mr. Klatt of the House committee, however, argues that the real difficulty is on the other side of the Capitol. “I’m very confident that we can get something through over here. It’s just a question of whether the Senate will act,” he said.

Both the House and Senate went on a short recess this week, and are expected to return June 5.

Looking to November

Ultimately, however, the most fundamental problem in both chambers is the apparent inability—or unwillingness—of both sides to reach a middle ground.

And here, there is plenty of finger-pointing to go around. “I haven’t seen much indication that the Republicans are willing to work with us,” said Michael Cohen, the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. “We’ve been very clear about what our top priorities are.” These include class-size reduction, teacher-quality improvements, heightened accountability, and school renovation.

One GOP proposal that has especially upset Democrats—known as “Straight A’s"—would allow a limited number of states to convert much of their federal aid into a block grant in exchange for new accountability demands. Democrats say it would undermine the ability to set national priorities.

But Sen. Gregg insisted that it’s time to try something different. "[Most Democrats] are locked into the 1960s approach to education,” he said. Overall, the Republican emphasis is on child-centered programs, student achievement, flexibility, and demanding accountability from states and districts, he said.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and a handful of other moderate Democrats had hoped to stake out some middle ground with their “third way” reauthorization proposal, which would consolidate federal programs, increase spending, and increase accountability. But their plan was soundly defeated by the Senate in early May, and continued talks with Republicans have failed to produce a deal.

Many observers say that as politicians look to the November elections, it becomes more difficult to reach a compromise, especially given the popular appeal of education and the differing approaches of the two parties.

If a bill is not signed into law, Democrats will likely blame the “do-nothing” GOP Congress for refusing to work in a bipartisan fashion and pushing a conservative agenda, while Republicans will likely complain that their effort to hand more control to states and districts was stopped cold by Democrats and a White House seeking to protect the status quo.

Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said that “each side at this point believes they are inoculated against [political fall-out],” and is pushing items to “charge up their partisans.”

But he cautions that this strategy may be more likely to backfire for the GOP. “Republicans definitely have more to lose” politically if the bill dies, he said, because they control the Congress and education is still an issue more readily identified with the Democrats.

Mr. Ornstein added, however, that this advantage has been softened by the attention Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive GOP nominee for president, has paid to the issue in his campaign.

‘Back to Zero’

If lawmakers are unable to reach a bipartisan agreement, which Democrats have been quick to emphasize would break a longstanding tradition on the ESEA, it could be some time before the law is reauthorized.

“Everything goes back to zero,” said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education. He predicted that with a new president, it could well be a year from now before a new administration had an ESEA proposal ready to submit to Congress. Also, the House education committee will have a new chairman, since Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania is planning to retire, and could be in the hands of Democrats depending on how the elections turn out.

As the ESEA’s prospects diminish, attention is shifting to the annual appropriations bill that covers the Education Department as a vehicle for some policy initiatives. For one, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, has indicated that he may seek to attach a new program for early-childhood education. This plan is co-sponsored by Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., the chairman of the education committee, and several Democrats, but is opposed by many conservatives.

Democrats are sure to seek a third year’s funding for the class-size-reduction program, which was created through the appropriations process two years ago and renewed last fall, and are also likely to push for a school modernization program. In addition, advocates for rural schools are hoping that legislative changes to grant them more flexibility could be approved through the appropriations bill. Last week, 30 House Democrats sent a letter to the Appropriations Committee saying that “rural America cannot wait as Congress puts the ESEA debate on hold for another year.”

But some experts worry about making policy through the appropriations process. “It’ll be a fast and dirty deal done in the last days by the leaders,” said John F. Jennings, the president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy and a former aide to House Democrats. “It’s a sloppy way to do business.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 2000 edition of Education Week as Time Grows Short on ESEA Renewal


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