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Federal Opinion

Harkin-Enzi ESEA Madness

By Rick Hess — October 18, 2011 2 min read
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Substantively, I don’t have a ton to add to what I wrote yesterday. But there were a couple of interesting developments, and various declarations have helped clarify where things stand. Here’s my take.

The Good: Over the weekend, Harkin and Enzi scrapped the proposal to require states to adopt federally-approved teacher and principal evaluation systems. Instead, they opted to offer federal dollars to support smart state systems as a competitive grant for which states can choose to apply. This happy development marked a big win for Senator Alexander and those concerned about federal overreach. It marked a big setback for the CAP-Ed Trust Democrats, which is why Secretary Duncan lashed out at the announcement. The upshot here is that the pro-NCLB Dems didn’t much like the original Harkin-Enzi proposal, and they’re going to like any version that emerges from HELP even less.

The Bad: The consequence of killing the teacher and principal evaluation mandate is that Harkin-Enzi now leaves wholly intact the paper-chase monstrosity that is the Highly Qualified Teacher provision. This effort to police teacher quality from DC by regulating paper credentials has been a bureaucratic headache of no obvious value, and here’s hoping it gets addressed along the way.

The Alexander Update: Senator Alexander announced yesterday that he’d support moving Harkin-Enzi out of the HELP Committee, but would be proposing a series of major amendments on the Senate floor. He said he couldn’t vote to enact the bill in its current form.

The Establishment Update: The NEA, AASA, NAESP, NASSP, and NSBA issued a joint letter calling on the Senate to take its time. After several years arguing that ESEA urgently needs to be reauthorized, they reversed course and urged that the Senate slow down and not “race against the clock.”

The Politics: RHSU readers know I’ve been saying for a year now that there was no chance that NCLB/ESEA reauth would happen before the 2012 election. Rather, I’d long predicted an “AMT patch” alternative (e.g. the administration’s industrial scale “conditional waiver” strategy). Nothing much has changed. Finding sixty votes for some version of Harkin-Enzi in the Senate will prove enormously difficult, if not impossible. Most of the Senate Republicans are going to resist anything that includes much in the way of categoricals, HQT, and mandated improvement strategies; DFER-type Dems will insist on those things; and blob-backed Dems are going to want more money and less accountability. How you assemble sixty votes there is tough to see. And, even if you do, it’s hard to see how you reconcile whatever emerges with what House Republicans are hoping to do.

The Bottom Line: The odds of reauthorization happening before the 2012 election may have moved up a tick from 1-in-100, but they haven’t moved much more than that. The maneuvering and fighting are less about what ESEA reauth will look like, and more about setting markers and default language for the next go-round--the shape of which will depend on what emerges from next fall’s elections.

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