Congress plans to kick-start the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this week with the first in a series of hearings in a key House committee, where members pledge a “bipartisan, open, and transparent” process in rewriting the version of the law enacted under President George W. Bush.
The finish line remains a long way off in a Congress bitterly divided over issues such as health care, hurtling toward the 2010 midterm elections, and still without a specific proposal from the Obama administration about how it would revise the ESEA, currently called the No Child Left Behind Act.
Still, in announcing the hearings last week, leading Democrats and Republicans on the House Education and Labor Committee declared that the NCLB act is “a law that we all agree is in need of major reform,” and that the panel would “work to ensure an excellent education is available to every student in America.”
The statement was issued by Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the committee; John Kline of Minnesota, its ranking Republican; Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., the chairman of the subcommittee on elementary and secondary education; and Michael N. Castle of Delaware, the senior Republican on that subcommittee.
The process was scheduled to begin with a Feb. 24 hearing on an already introduced bill dealing with a topic on which Democrats and Republicans have come to share some common ground: charter schools.
Yet the chances for a full reauthorization of the ESEA still appear uncertain.
The politically poisonous atmosphere in Congress, which has contributed to a stalemate on President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority—health-care reform—poses a mortal threat to any significant piece of legislation, such as the main federal education law.
Congress is already getting bogged down in partisan debates over legislation to bolster jobs creation, and a bill to revamp the federal student-loan system.
Complicating the situation are the logistics of a waning congressional schedule, especially as the midterm elections approach and members switch into campaign mode. After a Republican won a special election last month in Massachusetts for the U.S. Senate, Democrats in that chamber no longer hold a 60-vote filibuster-proof majority, meaning that legislation may be even more difficult to pass.
And finally, there are the substantive issues involved in a rewrite of the ESEA, including the fate of the current law’s primary yardstick, known as adequate yearly progress, or AYP; how schools would be held accountable; and whether and how successful schools would be rewarded.
That’s not to say there’s no hope for passage.
“Once you get outside the Beltway, you have Democratic and Republican governors, as well as Democratic and Republican state lawmakers, who’ve embraced the [Obama administration] agenda,” said Charles Barone, the director of federal legislation for Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee. “It’s clearly bipartisan, but it’s just not clear that the agreement on policy will trump the politics in Washington.”
The first hearing was set to focus on a bill that would create a competitive-grant program to expand and replicate successful charter schools to serve additional students, with priority given to students deemed at risk of failure and those stuck in low-performing schools.
It’s not insignificant that the House is kicking off its hearings by discussing charter schools, which are publicly financed but largely independent. Expanding good charter schools is one area in which many Democrats and Republicans agree—and it’s an issue championed by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—yet it’s not at the core of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
A far thornier issue is likely to be accountability. The essence of the current law’s accountability section is annual testing in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and once in high school, with the idea that schools make adequate yearly progress toward the ultimate goal of having all students be proficient in math and reading by the end of the 2013-14 school year. Schools that fail to make AYP face an escalating set of consequences, which include providing tutoring for students and having to be restructured.
Bipartisanship also could be tested over the role common academic standards play in the reauthorization, especially as many Republicans remain skeptical of any real, or perceived, attempt to impose “federal” standards. (“‘Race to Top’ Standards Link Questioned,” Dec. 16, 2009.)
The reauthorization debate also is likely to involve just how much flexibility will be built into the new law for states and school districts, especially as it pertains to how schools are identified as failing—something Democrats and Republicans alike will keep their eyes on.
“Parents, teachers, and local school boards have made it clear there is no one-size-fits-all federal prescription for reforming our schools. Republicans remain committed to local innovation and flexibility, recognizing that no two classrooms are exactly alike,” said Rep. Kline in a statement, adding that he welcomes the chance for bipartisan negotiations.
Now that the House has shown its readiness to get started, those on both sides of the aisle say it’s time for the Obama administration to put forth a reauthorization plan—and quickly.
Policymakers who have been briefed on the Department of Education’s plans indicate that a proposal could come as early as this month.
Department spokesman Justin Hamilton wouldn’t comment last week on the timing of any proposal, and would only say of the pending hearings: “This is an important step in the right direction. We applaud the bipartisan leadership in the House.”
Even without unveiling a proposal, however, the administration has made its priorities clear, in particular through its economic-stimulus program’s $4 billion Race to the Top Fund grant competition and its 2011 budget plan.
Those priorities include aggressive action on turning around the lowest-performing schools, replication of successful charter schools, more rewards for successful schools, and teacher evaluations that are tied to student performance.
Pressure on Administration
Still, observers of various political stripes say time is running out.
Jack Jennings, the president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy and a former longtime Democratic congressional aide, said in a phone briefing with reporters last week that the Obama administration campaigned on “bringing sense to NCLB.”
“We’re 13 months into the administration, and there’s no proposal to do that,” he said.
Mr. Jennings said that unless reauthorization takes place within a couple of months, educators could be left with the current NCLB rules until the 2012-13 school year, since the Congress seated after the fall elections will take its time getting organized before diving into substantive legislation.
By then, Mr. Jennings said, nearly all the schools in some states could be labeled as needing improvement for AYP under the current system, which the Obama administration has signaled it wants changed.
“It’s the duty of the president to lead on policy,” Mr. Jennings said after learning of the first House hearings planned on the ESEA renewal. “Now is the time to step up to the bat and say what he’s going to do about NCLB.”
Other observers warn that if the administration fails to come out with a strong, clear proposal, the reauthorization risks facing the same difficulties as the health-care overhaul. On that issue, the administration set broad parameters but let Congress try to hash out the details. Although the House and the Senate each passed a bill, the legislation has since stalled.
“We have to know whether [President Obama is] going to push it,” said a senior Republican Senate staff member who did not wish to be named. “The reason that some of the other things did not go forward is because we didn’t know from the president where he wants to go.”
Still, the staff member said, “there’s a willingness for Republicans to sit down at the table as long as we’re taken seriously. Duncan has given us every indication that’s his plan.”
Staff Writer Lesli A. Maxwell contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2010 edition of Education Week as Committee Sets Sights on ESEA