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President Obama has a long list of K-12 items on the policy agenda for his next two years in office, but it remains to be seen how his priorities will jibe with those of the new, more conservative Congress that took office last week with many members intent on shrinking the federal government and squeezing spending.
Although renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—whose current version is the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001—is being touted as one area of potential common ground, the task is politically tricky for reasons that go beyond partisan divisions: There are deep disagreements within both parties over the best direction to take K-12 policy.
Meanwhile, the new Republican-controlled House could step up oversight of key Obama programs, including the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program, passed in 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal economic-stimulus package.
Mr. Obama’s push for a one-year extension of that program and of the Investing in Innovation program, also a stimulus initiative, could face tough sledding in a Congress where Republicans outnumber Democrats 242 to 193 in the House and hold 47 seats for a bolstered minority in the Senate.
First, however, the new Congress will have to complete the spending bills for fiscal year 2011, which started on Oct. 1.
Since then, lawmakers have passed a series of stop-gap measures financing all government programs, including those in the U.S. Department of Education, at fiscal 2010 levels. The most recent of those extensions, approved in late December, expires on March 4. It’s unclear whether school districts and states can expect increased federal aid when Congress turns to the spending bills later this winter.
House Republican leaders have pledged to restore federal spending to fiscal year 2008 levels, although they haven’t been specific about which programs they would like to scale back. Senate Republicans and some Democrats also have promised to take a tougher fiscal line.
The short-term budget extension represents “the worst option for education,” said Joel Packer, a principal at the Washington-based Raben Group, which advocates for the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition.
Mr. Packer, who previously worked as a lobbyist for the National Education Association, is expecting a grim fiscal fight in the months ahead.
“It’s going to be terrible,” he said. “I think we’ll be negotiating between a significant cut and a freeze. … I would be hopeful that President Obama actually draws some firm lines in the sand and says, ‘If they send me a bill that cuts education below [certain] levels, I will veto.’”
The spending bills will determine the fiscal future for key Obama administration priorities, including the Race to the Top program, which rewards states for embracing certain education redesign goals, and the i3 program, which helps districts and nonprofits scale up promising practices.
The administration wants a one-year extension for both programs, which were created as one-time initiatives under the ARRA.
President Obama also campaigned on significantly ramping up funding for early-childhood education programs. Late last year, Congress was poised to provide $300 million for a new program to help states improve their pre-kindergarten options, but a measure containing money for the program was scrapped and it would seem to be an uphill battle for the new Congress to create the program in the new spending bill.
The extension measure does include language on highly qualified teachers that would essentially reverse an October court ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco.
The court found that the Bush administration’s 2002 regulation on “highly qualified” teachers improperly broadened the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law that year, because it allowed alternative-route teachers to circumvent the definition.
The law requires teachers to hold full certification in order to be considered highly qualified, while the regulations issued by the Bush administration permit teachers in alternative routes to be considered highly qualified under the law, even without certification, if they are making progress in their programs.
Supporters of high-profile alternative-certification programs, such as Teach For America, were dismayed by the appeals court ruling.
ESEA in the Balance
The administration signaled last week that it is ready to press Congress to tackle reauthorization of the ESEA, which has been pending since 2007.
On the first day the new Congress was in session, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post making the case that education could be a bipartisan issue.
“While we don’t agree on everything, our core goals are shared—and we all want to fix [the NCLB law] to better support reform at the state and local level,” Mr. Duncan wrote on Jan. 3.
For now, advocates are watching the White House to see just how prominently education, and the ESEA specifically, will figure into President Obama’s very first State of the Union address to a divided Congress.
If President Obama makes a prominent, personal pitch for revising the law, that could significantly improve the chances for renewal, said John Bailey, who served as an adviser on education issues under President George W. Bush.
But reauthorization is still not going to be easy, said Mr. Bailey who is now a director at Washington-base White Board Advisors, which publishes Education Insider, a monthly survey of key political and policy insiders.
“I think it’s challenging,” he said. “The chances are better if the president makes this the top priority. I still think that this is an uphill battle because there’s so much disagreement within the Republican Party and Democratic Party.”
Last year the administration’s push to revise the ESEA law stalled. Secretary Duncan released a blueprint in March, as Congress was at the climax of a pitched debate on the health-care overhaul. The measure received hearings in both chambers, but stalled. Staff members met to discuss the issues, but neither house ever introduced a bill.
Mr. Bailey pointed to divisions in the Democratic Party over issues such as how best to measure teacher effectiveness and turn around low-performing schools.
“If there was that consensus within the Democratic Party we would have [had] an ESEA bill long before now,” Mr. Bailey said.
It’s still uncertain whether Republican leaders on education issues are going to respond to Mr. Duncan’s call.
Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the new chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, will likely have to get new members of the panel up to speed on K-12 issues. At least eight GOP committee members are new to Congress. Many campaigned largely on cracking down on government spending and authority, not on K-12 issues.
“These are not going to be folks who came to Washington primarily to talk about education,” said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform in Washington, D.C., an organization that advocates for expanding school choice.
In a move that could complicate the administration’s push for ESEA renewal, Rep. Kline is considering moving smaller, more targeted bills that deal with particular issues at the heart of the law, as opposed to a broad reauthorization, said Alexa Marrero, a spokeswoman for Rep. Kline.
That’s partly because Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the new speaker of the House of Representatives and a former chairman of the education committee, has signaled that he doesn’t favor large, complicated bills in which major policy changes may not get the sort of debate and attention they need, Ms. Marrero said.
As chairman, Mr. Boehner successfully worked with Democrats to pass the NCLB law in 2001. But it remains to be seen whether that bipartisan effort can be rekindled.
New Sheriffs in Town
Rep. Kline is also interested in examining the K-12 portion of the AARA, which provided some $100 billion for education, and created new programs, such as the Race to the Top, with little congressional oversight.
In hearings, Mr. Kline has questioned Secretary Duncan about elements of the program, including its scoring system and use of peer reviewers. There are other new education leaders on the panel, such as Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-Calif., who is now the chairman of the subcommittee overseeing K-12 policy.
That would give him a spot in the “Big 8” lawmakers that the administration is courting in its push to renew the ESEA law, which last year included the chairman and ranking member of each of the committees and subcommittees overseeing K-12 policy.
Rep. Hunter is considered much more conservative than his Republican predecessor on the Big 8, Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., who was defeated in his primary last year.
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as K-12 Funding, Policy on Congressional Radar