The House of Representatives is slated to consider a Republican bill to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act very soon. At the moment, it appears likely to go to the House floor next week on Thursday or Friday, but things can change very, very quickly on Capitol Hill when it comes to scheduling, so don’t bet the bank (or maybe even your Metro fare) on that timeline.
Even though no one expects Congress to complete reauthorization of the law this year, the House vote will be an important dry run ... and it’s the first time that a bill to reauthorize ESEA has made it to the floor of either chamber since 2001. Here’s a preliminary list of what to watch for:
Republican messaging: In a nutshell, the watch word of the legislation is flexibility. Under the bill, districts and states would still have to test kids in grades three through eight and once in high school—and they’d still have to report on the progress of subgroups of students. But they would have lots of leeway to do whatever they think will work best when it comes to school improvement and identifying students. There’s also new funding flexibility, including getting rid of so-called “maintenance-of-effort” requirements. In many ways, the legislation returns turns back the clock to the time before No Child Left Behind. You can find more messaging in this series of videos featuring members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee here.
Democratic messaging: Don’t expect the bill’s supporters to get many (or, um, any) Democrats on board. During committee consideration, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and other Democrats on the panel put forth just one big amendment wiping out the whole bill and replacing it with their vision—they didn’t bother to make incremental changes to a bill they clearly consider to be really bad policy, especially for disadvantaged and minority kids. Will that be their strategy during floor action, too? Either way, expect to hear the words “The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the civil rights community don’t support this” coming from a lot of Democrats during floor consideration. Money is going to be another big messaging point, since the bill freezes in place sequestration cuts, and in the view of many Democrats, block grants funding for key groups of students.
Conservative Call: Can this thing actually pass or will it meet the same fate as other legislation that had the support of GOP leaders but not rank-and-file conservatives? One piece of legislation to watch: The A-plus Act, slated to be put forward by Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah (a former teacher). More on all that here.
Teacher evaluation: The big sticking point between House Republicans and their Senate counterparts is that the House bill would require school districts to craft teacher evaluation systems based on student outcomes and use the evaluations in making personnel decisions. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, thinks that’s not the Feds’ purview. Meanwhile, Rep. John Kline, the chairman of the House education committee and the author of the House ESEA bill, has made it clear that this is something he personally believes very strongly in. Will Kline’s Republican colleagues in the House see it his way, or Alexander’s?
School Choice: Will Rep. Eric Cantor, the majority leader—who has been Mr. School Choice lately—put forth some sort of amendment on Title I portability or vouchers (and can the bill keep the support of district advocates if he does and it gets included?)
Slamming the Core: Should we expect an anti-common-core amendment, even though the bill already prohibits the secretary of education from giving states an edge in competitive grants? At a minimum, expect some serious slamming of the common core on the floor from folks in the GOP. (So add the words “common core” to whatever reauthorization drinking game you’ll play while watching C-SPAN.)
Sleeper Issue: Title I funding formula. Yes, it’s wonky, and yes it’s confusing, but it totally, totally matters to school districts all over the country. The lawmaker to keep your eye on here is Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., the author of the All Children Are Equal Act, which seeks to make sure rural districts get their fair share of the funding. Of course, funding formula amendments don’t always have a great track record in the Rules Committee (which gets to decide which amendments the full House will consider). Thompson is already starting his persuasion process, circulating information making his argument.
Discussion Question: The House floor debate will be very fiery on both sides, but is all that rhetoric going to be helpful? Republicans will say this bill will free school districts from the chains of federal intrusion. (Okay...but they will still have to do testing, which is the big objection of lots of educators.) Democrats will say this bill allows states to walk away from improving schools that don’t do a good job of educating all subgroups of students (but some folks would say the same thing about the Obama administration’s waivers.) The bottom line is that the two parties are in different places, but the debate will really play up those differences and make it seem as though there’s no possible middle ground. Could that make compromise harder down the road—and further delay renewal?
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