Crush of Education Laws Awaits Renewal in Congress
The new, still-divided Congress that took office this month faces a lengthy list of education policy legislation that is either overdue for renewal or will be soon, in a political landscape that remains consumed with fiscal issues.
But it's tough to say whether there will be much action on all that outdated legislation—including the No Child Left Behind Act, which has awaited reauthorization since 2007. The cast of characters in Washington is virtually unchanged since before the 2012 elections—which left President Barack Obama in the White House, Democrats in control of the Senate, and Republicans in control of the House of Representatives.
So far, that's led to a serious legislative logjam on everything from a limited bill renewing education research programs to the budget of the entire U.S. government.
And one education bill—the reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant program, which governs some key early-child-care grants—hasn't gotten a makeover in more than a decade and half. It was last reauthorized in 1996, when President Bill Clinton was running for his second term.
Longtime Capitol Hill aides from both sides of the political aisle can't remember a time when Congress was this jammed up.
The 113th Congress, which took office this month, has a long to-do list when it comes to education legislation. Among pending renewals:
• Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act: Governs vocational education programs and is the largest federal program for high schools. Last renewed in 2006.
• Child Care and Development Block Grant Act: Governs major child-care grants. Last renewed in 1996.
• Education Sciences Reform Act: Governs the Institute of Education Sciences. Last renewed in 2002.
• Elementary and Secondary Education Act: Governs Title I and other key K-12 education programs. Most recent iteration is the No Child Left Behind Act. Last renewed in 2002.
• Head Start Act: Governs a nearly $8 billion program that offers early-childhood education services to low-income families. Last renewed in 2007.
• Higher Education Act: Governs teacher education programs, as well as student financial aid and college-access programs, including GEAR-UP and TRIO. Last renewed in 2008.
• Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: Governs special education programs. Last renewed in 2004.
• Workforce Investment Act: Governs job training programs. Last renewed in 1998.
"This is unprecedented," said Jack Jennings, who served as an aide for Democrats on the House Education committee from 1967 to 1994. Mr. Jennings said that when he worked on Capitol Hill nearly two decades ago, lawmakers kept to a schedule, tackling big reauthorizations, such as for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act or the Higher Education Act, roughly every two years. That "discipline" is gone, he said.
He blames both parties in Congress for the lack of movement. Republicans, he said, have been adamant about a limited federal role in education, making compromise difficult. And Democrats could have passed a renewal of the ESEA law—and other key education legislation—in 2009 and 2010 when they controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, he added.
"Congress should be ashamed of itself," said Mr. Jennings, who founded the Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy organization, after leaving the Hill and is now retired. "The same people who neglect their legislative duties bewail the sad state of American education."
The appropriations committees—which control funding—typically continue to finance education programs, even after their authorizations have long expired, noted Mr. Jennings. The problem, he said, is that programs can become outdated, then viewed as ineffective, and finally, slashed, as Congress looks to trim spending. Without authorizing legislation, he said, "there is the potential for major disruption."
Vic Klatt, who worked for years as a top aide to Republicans on the House education committee, said he couldn't remember a time when the congressional education to-do list had been this lengthy. Lawmakers' inaction means that the Obama administration "has been able to get away with doing whatever they want, whenever they want," said Mr. Klatt, who is now a principal at Penn Hill Group, a government-relations firm in Washington.
Searching for Stability
An obvious case in point: Because of congressional inaction on the ESEA, the administration has issued waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, the law's current iteration, allowing states to get out from under key mandates in exchange for embracing the administration's education redesign priorities.
But the waivers don't provide enough predictability for states, most of which are in the midst of moving toward new academic standards, assessments, and teacher-evaluation systems, said Peter Zamora, the director of federal relations for the Council of Chief State School Officers. He also noted that another federal debt-ceiling fight is in the offing, and automatic spending cuts of 8 percent for key federal programs loom.
"It becomes particularly challenging for practitioners to plan, if you don't know what NCLB will look like, or what your federal funding will look like," he said. "We're urging Congress to reassert itself and provide some stability."
It's unclear just how much the administration will push for an ESEA renewal in the coming Congress. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the CCSSO in a November speech in Savannah, Ga., that the administration needs to see interest from Congress before it leads on ESEA renewal.
The House and Senate education committees approved bills in the previous Congress to update the law. While both measures would have given considerably more flexibility to states in creating accountability systems, the two chambers clashed on critical issues such as the role of the federal government in school improvement, teacher effectiveness, and the scope of the Education Department.
Still, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate, Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, have each listed ESEA renewal as a top priority for the new year.
And both lawmakers say they're optimistic that the new Congress will be a productive one for education.
"Traditionally, this has been an area where we can find bipartisan agreement, and I hope that will continue in the new Congress," said Sen. Harkin in an email.
An aide to Sen. Harkin said lawmakers' current workload is typical of recent Congresses, in which reauthorizations of major laws often go through several iterations before they are finally passed. The aide cited the ESEA bill, approved by the panel in fall 2011, as an important step forward in renewing the law, but wasn't ready to say which portions of that legislation would serve as the basis for a new measure this year.
The Senate committee will begin the renewal process by taking a closer look at waiver Implementation, likely through a hearing, a Harkin aide said.
And Mr. Kline appears ready to roll up his sleeves."Clearly, we have our work cut out for us in the 113th Congress," he said in an email. "I hope my committee colleagues and I can work together in a bipartisan fashion ... on these important issues."
Get in Line
Meanwhile renewals of more narrowly tailored laws—such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—are likely to languish behind the ESEA, since the main K-12 law sets the stage for other policy negotiations.
"ESEA holds everything up," said Lindsay Jones, the senior director of policy and advocacy services at the Council for Exceptional Children, a Washington-based organization that focuses on students in special and gifted education.
A delay in updating the IDEA, which was last renewed in 2004, leaves unsettled policy questions that are likely to be dealt with in the overhauls of both laws, such as how districts should approach assessments for students in special education.
And an unsettled ESEA reauthorization is also bogging down the renewal of the Education Sciences Reform Act, or ESRA, which governs the Institute of Education Sciences and is seen as a companion bill to the ESEA.
States and districts are "really moving the ball forward in areas where there's not a lot of research," such as school turnarounds and assessments, said Mr. Zamora. "We would like to see ESRA better aligned to state practice."
If the logjam breaks, it could offer an opportunity to harmonize different, but related, pieces of legislation, said Lisa Guernsey, the director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington.
For instance, she suggested that Congress may want to consider renewing related legislation in batches, dealing all at once with the three measures that touch on early-childhood education—Head Start, Child Care and Development Block Grant Act, and ESEA.
Vol. 32, Issue 17, Pages 18, 20Published in Print: January 16, 2013, as Crush of Ed. Laws Awaiting Renewal in Congress