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Federal Opinion

Kline to Obama: Chill Out

By Rick Hess — March 17, 2011 3 min read
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Gosh, so House Education chair John Kline has responded to the Obama-Duncan insistence that we are going to reauthorize NCLB this summer by telling them to back off. Geez, who could have seen this coming? (Oh, yeah, it was me... here, and here, and here, and here, and here.)

As I’ve said before, there’s been a bizarre Obama-centrism when describing “bipartisan” support for reauthorization. Somehow, supposedly neutral, incisive reporters have taken to reporting Duncan’s assertions that there’s bipartisan backing for the administration’s “blueprint” as evidence that such backing indeed exists. They’ve taken his claims that the bill represents a common sense approach and addresses conservative priorities as proof that it does. And they’ve repeatedly suggested that the supposed “consensus” around ED’s “blueprint” is bipartisan, because Senator Lamar Alexander tends to support it. (Once again, the fact that conservatives might support some or all of the blueprint’s notions in principle, relating to teacher effectiveness or school improvement, doesn’t mean that they necessarily support doing them at the federal level. This distinction has seemed to consistently elude both administration officials and the press.)

The coverage has rarely noted that a loose coalition of NEA-friendly Democratic Senators and small government Republicans in the Senate might be able to block reauthorization. And it’s been astonishingly disinterested in whether House Republicans who promised to dramatically shrink the federal footprint are all that eager to pass an education bill that retains any federal role when it comes to school improvement or teacher effectiveness. On Tuesday, John Kline usefully reminded us that even when the Secretary of Education, the Senate Education chair, and Senator Alexander support a bill, it still has to pass the House--and he’s in no hurry. As he told The Hill, “I’m very much aware that...presidential politics will start to dominate what goes on around here. So there is a little bit of urgency to move, but I’m not going to rush this and do it wrong.”

While the edu-press has breathlessly reported (both this year and last year) Obama and Duncan’s resolve on enacting a comprehensive reauthorization, Kline insisted, “We’re just not going to do it.” Much to the consternation of the administration and Hill pros, who say you can’t do a piecemeal reauth and that nothing will get done, Kline said he intends to break NCLB up into a series of separate bills.

Reminding us how the conflicts over health care, the bailout, and financial reform have colored today’s House debate, Kline said that lawmakers were still “stinging” from the mammoth pieces of Democratic legislation passed in 2009 and 2010. After all, The Hill noted that Kline’s committee is flush with new members, including several freshman who “campaigned against the very existence of the Department of Education.” And, as we’ve seen during the most recent votes on the continuing resolution to fund the federal government, these folks are not content to merely fall into line.

Administration officials and reporters who should know better are confident that reauthorization will get done because it’s “bipartisan,” as evidenced by the broad support for the 2001 bill. Of course, that’s a misleading view. The historic bipartisanship of federal ed policy, which involved mailing new money out to states and districts, reflected a time when federal ed policy was less central to national politics, occurred absent the shadow of furious concerns about federal overreach, and was more a reflection of Republicans supporting a new President than of particular enthusiasm for the bill. Most significantly, today there’s no new money to grease the process. Indeed, while many accounts last fall suggested that John Boehner’s accession to House Speaker would speed up reauthorization, since he was in Kline’s post when NCLB was enacted, Jack Jennings of the Center on Education Policy accurately noted this week that Boehner has since “more or less disowned No Child Left Behind.”

So, what’s ahead? Says Kline, "[The administration is] going to move at their pace, and they’re going to have to understand...that we’re going to move at our pace.” Like I’ve said all along. I’m predicting a bill in 2013 or after. But, I’m expecting some kind of “NCLB patch” in summer or fall 2012, which will render the “needs improvement” label meaningless. Interestingly, the Duncan-Obama effort to stir up hysteria about too many failing schools could very well help focus attention on the need for that patch/waiver/what have you. And, if that happens, the likelihood of reauth might just recede even further.

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