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Duncan, Senate Republicans Talk ESEA Renewal

By Alyson Klein — December 20, 2010 2 min read
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No one is expecting the more-conservative Congress and the Democratic administration to cooperate on much next year.

But reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is one area where there’s a glimmer of hope for compromise between the two parties. (In fact, most education advocates would tell you that the differences between Democrats and Democrats, and Republicans and Republicans may be just as likely to scuttle talks as any partisan divides.)

The buzz is that education could get a much more prominent role than usual in the president’s State of the Union address early next year. And lawmakers want to be ready.

The two top GOP senators on ESEA renewal, Sen. Michael B. Enzi, of Wyoming, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, both have a history of working across the aisle on education issues. The two met last week with GOP lawmakers on the Senate education committee to get a sense of their thinking.

GOP lawmakers agreed that the a) the current version of law, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, needs to be changed, to give greater flexibility to states and districts, and b) they want Congress to make the changes, not see the department do it through the regulatory process (which is what some education groups are hoping for).

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also met last week with Enzi and Alexander. It was just the lawmakers in Enzi’s office, no staff.

All three have said in the past that they share some common ground on a number of policy issues, at least at the 3,000 foot level. It sounds like they would like to get something accomplished this year, if possible. The conventional wisdom is that if Congress waits too long on ESEA renewal, talks could get mired in the presidential debate.

I’m sure the lawmakers and the secretary recognize that the political path forward is tricky, thanks to an increasingly partisan atmosphere in Washington and those intra-party differences on policy issues.

For his part, Secretary Duncan has been reaching out to key lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, personally calling Republican offices to try to build support for renewal.

Over on the House side, before the election, staff from both the Democratic and Republican leaders on the committee met regularly on reauthorization for months and apparently reached broad agreement on some issues. I would bet it’s too early to say for sure what the impact of the election will be on those areas of agreement. But it’s a good sign for those who want to see a renewal that they got somewhere.

What do you think? Can Congress make reauthorization happen next year?