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Fact Check: Why Did it Take So Long for ESEA to Get Done?

By Alyson Klein — December 02, 2015 3 min read
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Everyone is excited that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is finally moving and agrees it’s taken way too long law to get a facelift. But what exactly accounted for the big delay?

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate minority leader, pointed the finger directly across the aisle in a speech Wednesday, just before the House was set to take up the bill to reauthorize the ESEA. He said Republicans obstructed past efforts.

“I’m happy to have participated in getting something done with Elementary and Secondary Education, led by, on our side, the senior senator from Washington [Sen. Patty Murray],” he said on the Senate floor. “We were able to get it done because of her good work and others. But it wasn’t that we didn’t try before. We couldn’t get it done before because of the obstruction of Republicans.”

Actually, it was a lot more complicated than that.

There were many, many reasons that a bipartisan Senate bill to revise ESEA didn’t make it over the finish line back in 2011, even though it had the support of three education committee Republicans, including Sens. Mike Enzi, the top GOP lawmaker on the panel at the time and Lamar Alexander, the current chairman of the panel and the co-author the current Every Student Succeeds Act. Both of them said publicly at the time that they wanted to see the legislation get to the floor. (Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., also supported the bill.)

So what were the major obstacles? Sure, some Republicans (like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky) hated the bill and would have probably tried to kill it, or at least not helped along the process.

But the Obama administration wasn’t exactly in love with the legislation, either, in part because it didn’t include a requirement for teacher evaluation through student outcomes. (Administration officials may now be privately regretting not doing more to move that bill forward, since it was arguably stronger from their perspective than the legislation on the table now.)

The civil rights community was also not a huge fan of the 2011 legislation (it’s given a measured endorsement to this version). And accountability hawks were worried the bill would only get weaker on the floor (because of Republicans, but also because of teachers’ unions and Democrats allied with them).

So the 2011 bill’s sponsor, former Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he didn’t want to move forward, since a parallel process in the House was partisan. And that was it for ESEA in 2011.

Similarly, in 2013, Harkin tried to move another bill (this time with support from Democrats only, although Alexander made it clear he wanted to see it move to the floor). House Republicans, meanwhile moved a GOP-only version.

And the administration was pretty aloof to these efforts. It didn’t threaten to veto the Senate Democrats’ bill, of course, but it also didn’t rush out to help its path forward, either. The administration didn’t even put out a statement of support on it. (Officials were worried the bill would get weaker on the floor, advocates told me at the time.)

The very earliest attempt to get ESEA across the finish line was back in 2007. And it failed largely because of lack of support from the Bush administration and teachers’ unions.

On the other hand? Reid’s comments on Murray’s efforts seem to be right on the money. The top Democrat on the Senate education committee, is considered an ace negotiator. (As is Alexander). Their cooperation helped save the bill when it appeared doomed earlier this year.

And, working with their House counterparts, Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., and Bobby Scott, D-Va., they ended up with a product that governors and state chiefs love and the civil rights community is (relatively) happy with. That’s no small feat, considering negotiations started with an effort to ditch annual testing.

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