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Congress Won’t Reauthorize ESEA, So Netflix Will Do It For Them

By Ross Brenneman — February 12, 2013 2 min read
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After a great deal of promotion, Netflix last week released the drama series “House of Cards,” its first major original TV show. The political soap opera follows South Carolina congressman Francis “Frank” Underwood (Kevin Spacey, in a role he was born to play) as he and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) deftly maneuver Washington politics.

Denied a nomination to be secretary of state by the president-elect, Underwood channels his ambitions toward passing a major education bill, the Education Reform and Achievement Act. But don’t let the name fool you—it’s the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in every way that counts. Our real Congress has failed to reauthorize ESEA for over five years, but Hollywood has numerous advantages over Washington.

Playwright Beau Willimon, who wrote “Farragut North” and its movie adaptation, Ides of March, adapted “House of Cards” from a British show of the same name.

Let’s break it down further:

What’s the tone of “House of Cards”?

Set in Washington, we’re surrounded by manipulative, ambitious, power-hungry, lying politicos. In his wheelings and dealings (which are many and spectacular), Underwood collides with unions, lobbyists, media, and his own party. There’s drugs, sex, treachery, swearing, and more sex—you know, the good stuff. All killer, no filler.

It’s a lot like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Or at least the parts where Mr. Smith hasn’t yet arrived in Washington.

Ambitious, backstabbing politicos? Sure doesn’t sound like fiction!

I see what you did there!

It seems Hollywood is more likely to address education than Washington is.

The writers on “The West Wing” focused heavily on education during the final election in that series, while the simultaneous 2008 election more or less ignored the topic. (And that was before the recession.)

Willimon noted on Twitter that he hinged the plot on education because it affects us all directly and indirectly, and because of the contention that often revolves around education reform.

What’s in this ESEA ERAA bill?

Technically, the ERAA more closely resembles the No Child Left Behind Act, the most recent iteration of ESEA, than it does earlier versions of the law. Either way, many of the bill’s ideas are very much on the table in reality. ERAA addresses, at a minimum, testing frequency, teacher evaluation, seniority-based exemptions on value-added measurements, financing of non-public schools, and accountability for charter schools. Oh, and there’s an amendment that would strip federal school funding from any unionized districts.

Wow, that bill sure covers a lo—wait what? No federal funding of unionized districts?

Twist! You’ll get no more spoilers from me. For teachers who are skittish about how their profession is represented on television, breathe. “House of Cards” focuses mostly on the allure of power and the justifications of its costs than on the good and bad of policy. Frank is the protagonist, but he’s not a hero. Frank is not good people.

I think I’ll watch something else, thank you.

I recommend “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

But really, political junkies will probably enjoy “House of Cards.” The series has earned a great deal of attention as one of the first major forays into TV by an online entity, and its preliminary success is being watched closely by the entertainment industry.

And if politics isn’t your thing, Netflix will follow up this series with the much-anticipated return of “Arrested Development,” because at least one company knows that there’s always money in the banana stand.