School & District Management

Partisan Rifts Cloud Federal Ed.-Policy Prospects

By Alyson Klein — November 12, 2012 6 min read
Supporters wait for President Barack Obama at his home in Chicago the day after his re-election. He may continue to exert executive authority to advance his K-12 goals.
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After more than a year of heated campaigning, President Barack Obama remains in the White House, Democrats continue to control the U.S. Senate, and Republicans are still in charge of the House of Representatives—leaving unchanged a political landscape that has paralyzed congressional action on education policy and led the president to flex his muscles on K-12 issues.

Education advocates and state policymakers said last week they hope Washington can get beyond its differences and give states and districts assurances on such crucial matters as the future of K-12 funding and renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“The lack of consensus coming out of Washington on [the ESEA and] budget issues is creating quite a bit of uncertainty at the state level,” said Ronald Tomalis, the secretary of education in Pennsylvania, who was appointed by Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican. “The reality is that we may not be able to get an agreement between the executive branch and the legislative branch for a while.”

Even before the newly re-elected president is inaugurated in January, Mr. Obama and the still-divided Congress face an important test: They must work together to craft a deal to reduce the budget deficit—or, if they fail, face automatic cuts in a broad array of federal programs, including many in the U.S. Department of Education.


U.S. Senate

53 Democrats

45 Republicans

2 Independents

U.S. House of Representatives

193 Democrats

234 Republicans

8 Undecided

SOURCE: Education Week

Those reductions, aimed at prodding a long-term deficit-reduction plan, are to go into effect on Jan. 2, so averting them falls to President Obama and federal lawmakers in a planned lame-duck session of Congress later this year.

And the fiscal headaches don’t end there. Lawmakers must figure out a way to help stabilize the Pell Grant college-aid program, which faces a shortfall estimated at $7 billion, and head off a spike in interest rates on student loans, which are set to double to 6.8 percent next year.

Members of Congress also will be aiming to pass some half-dozen bills with implications for education policy, including the flagship ESEA, the Higher Education Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Mr. Obama’s victory means that his team—including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has said he wants to stay on the job—will continue implementing administration initiatives begun in the president’s first term.

They include Race to the Top, the grant program that rewards states and districts for embracing certain administration priorities intended to improve schools; Investing in Innovation, or i3, which scales up promising practices at the district level; and waivers given so far to 34 states and the District of Columbia to ease key provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the ESEA.

Fiscal Flash Point

Education funding emerged as a flash point during the presidential race, with Mr. Obama’s campaign warning of potentially dire cuts to special education and the Head Start early-childhood program, administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, if his Republican challenger, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, were to win.

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, talks at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 7. With the GOP holding the House and Democrats the Senate, questions remain about prospects for cooperation.

Mr. Obama, however, did not promise that he would veto any final budget deal that included cuts to K-12. And so far, the administration has not detailed how it would like to handle the so-called “fiscal cliff” resulting in part from the looming budget cuts and expiration of tax breaks enacted under President George W. Bush.

For their part, education advocates are urging the administration to try to spare education as much as possible in any final deal.

“We can’t just have arbitrary cuts,” said Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the 3 million-member National Education Association, which assisted Mr. Obama’s re-election efforts. “You have to be surgical and [make decisions] that would have the least amount of impact on the students that need it the most,” particularly those in poverty, he said.

U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said he expects that lawmakers will have to trim some programs, although he couldn’t say yet just how that could effect K-12 funding.

“It is apparent to me that there are going to have to be some spending cuts as we go forward, and I can’t predict to you now what those are going to be,” he said after the Nov. 6 election.

Prospects for Policy

But Mr. Kline thinks Washington should try to protect special education funding. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal government has aspired to pick up 40 percent of the tab for the excess costs of serving students in special education, but has never come close to that.

“My preference is always to give the priority to special education funding and then work from there,” Mr. Kline said.

And Rep. Kline hasn’t changed his stance on funding for President Obama’s high-profile competitive-grant programs: Race to the Top, i3, and the School Improvement Grant program, which offers states aid to turn around their lowest-performing schools.

House Republicans have tried to zero out funding for those programs, but the Democratic-controlled Senate and the administration have always restored that money. That trend could continue, as Democrats were able to bolster their majority in the Senate in last week’s elections, gaining two seats in the chamber, which now has 45 Republicans, 53 Democrats, and two Independents, both of whom are expected to caucus with the Democrats.

Both Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and Rep. Kline say that renewing the ESEA will be a priority next year. Mr. Kline, for one, is not a fan of the administration’s waiver plan, which he says is no substitute for a full-fledged reauthorization of the law.

“The urgency in my mind is still there. We need to get legislation that will move us away from the unilateral actions of the administration,” Rep. Kline said. “States who have requested and even been granted these waivers are not happy with them,” in part because they are temporary.

Sen. Harkin worked with Sen. Michael B. Enzi, the top gop member on the Senate education panel, on a bill last year that got support from a small cluster of Republicans on the committee. The Kline and Harkin bills take vastly different approaches when it comes to school improvement, teacher evaluation, and competitive grants.

But, like the NCLB waivers, both bills would get rid of adequate yearly progress, or AYP—the accountability yardstick at the heart of the current law—and give states much more leeway to intervene in most underperforming schools.

While that might seem like enough common ground to start from in building a bipartisan reauthorization, longtime Washington observers are skeptical.

“I just don’t see where the pressure is coming from,” said Cynthia Brown, the vice president for education policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, an education group in Washington.

The administration, she said, has already helped give states some flexibility by granting the waivers. And she ticked off a long list of other issues that may jump in line ahead of K-12 education, including the economy, health care, and environmental policy.

“I think there will be noise, there may be hearings, but I don’t see it happening,” she said of ESEA renewal.

Waiver Concerns

The course for the waivers has already been bumpy. Virginia had to redo its school performance targets—after the federal government had already approved the methodology behind the numbers—thanks to a firestorm from civil rights groups.

In Washington, Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House education committee, and a number of education advocates are increasingly alarmed by the small role graduation rates are playing in waivers’ accountability systems. And a handful of states have steered clear of the waivers altogether.

Lawmakers themselves seemed uncertain whether there could be a new era of bipartisanship.

“I think both sides will probably still stick to principles. I certainly expect that to be the case on our side of the aisle,” Mr. Kline said.

But he added: “There is pressure to get stuff done, and maybe that pressure will help us come together.”

Assistant Editor Michele McNeil contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2012 edition of Education Week as Stasis Persists In Washington


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