Push to Renew ESEA Faces Steep Policy, Political Hurdles

By Alyson Klein — May 17, 2010 8 min read
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This was supposed to be the year that Congress finally completed the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a task which has been lingering since 2007.

But the wait may go on.

Although the legislative machinery seems to be clanking along, with an Obama administration blueprint for renewal on the table and House and Senate education panels holding hearings on a variety of issues related to the law, the political prospects for the renewal are much more dicey.

Numerous hurdles—including a crowded legislative calendar, the tensions of an election year, and a lack of agreement about where to take what is likely to be a very complicated bill—have many observers doubting that Congress will complete work this year to reauthorize what is now known as the No Child Left Behind Act, signed in 2002.

“It’s getting harder and harder to see how they get there from here,” said Charles Barone, the director of federal legislation for Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee that finances Democratic candidates who support charter school expansion, among other policies. “It takes a while to move a bill through committee, and on to the floor, all that ‘School House Rock’ stuff.”

Officially, the Obama administration is aiming to pass a bill this year, even though no formal piece of legislation has yet been introduced.

“The administration has received very positive signals from bipartisan leadership in the House and Senate and is committed to moving forward this year,” said Sandra Abrevaya, a spokeswoman for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, is shooting to get a bill out of the Senate by the end of the summer, said Bergen Kenny, a spokeswoman for the Senate education committee.

A Democratic Senate aide said that timeline is realistic, but added that passing a comprehensive bill that improves student outcomes takes precedence over completing work in the chamber on such a bill this summer. And the aide cautioned that the committee is unlikely to consider a bill this summer if there isn’t sufficient time for the full Senate to consider it.

And at least one key lawmaker hasn’t committed to finishing the measure this year. “The policy is our top priority, getting this right for kids,” said Melissa Salmonowitz, a spokeswoman for Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee. She said discussions continue among congressional staff, lawmakers, the administration, and education advocates, but “a timeline is the least of our concerns.”

Added Pressure

The administration has put muscle—and even money—behind renewing the law this year.

Secretary Duncan has conducted a “listening and learning tour,” visiting nearly every state to garner feedback from stakeholders and build support for his ideas. And the administration in March released a blueprint outlining its ideas for reauthorization. (“Tests Loom For ESEA In Congress,” March 31, 2010.)

In its fiscal 2011 budget proposal, the administration said it would approve an additional $1 billion in education spending if Congress renewed the law this year, a highly unusual step that was seen as a signal that President Barack Obama wants lawmakers to act quickly.

But Congress has a full plate of other priorities, including overhauling the nation’s financial regulatory structure, and possibly considering energy and immigration legislation, not to mention the usual spending bills and the nomination of Elena Kagan, the U.S. solicitor general, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

And a rancorous debate over the health-care overhaul sucked up much of the political oxygen on Capitol Hill, leaving lawmakers with little appetite to delve into another tricky domestic-policy issue.

“With each passing day, it gets harder and harder to see how they can get it done,” said Vic Klatt, a lobbyist at Van Scoyoc Associates and a former longtime aide to House Republicans. “As someone who has been doing this for a very long time, it just doesn’t feel like it’s really going to happen.”

That’s partly because many of the core questions education lawmakers will have to address—teacher quality, standards, and accountability—are so difficult. But it is also because, once the bill begins to move, lawmakers will have to cope with a host of social issues that are often aired in the debate over ESEA, including home-schooling, military recruitment, and school prayer.

There is likely to be heightened interest in those topics as the 2010 midterm elections approach because they serve to “fire up the base,” said Mr. Barone, who served as an aide to Rep. Miller when Congress crafted and passed the NCLB law. But those issues can eat up precious legislative time, he said, particularly in the Senate, where the process for amending bills is much less restrictive than in the House.

Incremental Movement

There has been some action on the legislation. Congressional staff members, who often take the lead in negotiating legislative language, have held discussions on the renewal throughout the spring.

Lobbyists say, however, that the discussions haven’t yet led to a legislative product.

“They are still at the 10,000-foot level,” said one lobbyist who asked not to be named in order to speak freely about the talks. They are talking in generalities, the lobbyist said, as opposed to policy details.

A Senate aide put it much more bluntly.

“There’s no way in hell we’re going to mark up a bill [in the Senate] this summer,” the aide said. A more realistic schedule, the aide said, would involve working toward agreement on key issues, such as teacher quality, standards, and state accountability systems, over the summer and fall. Lawmakers could then introduce a bill in January or February and vote it out of committee by the Easter recess, the aide said.

The ESEA renewal historically has been a bipartisan bill. In 2001, for example, then-President George W. Bush partnered with the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, then the Democratic chairman of the Senate education committee, to shepherd through the NCLB law, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. A Democratic Senate aide said that the education committee in that chamber plans to keep the tradition intact.

But while key Republicans say they are pleased with the process so far, they don’t want to be beholden to passing a bill on any particular time frame.

“I remain focused on the open, cooperative, and bipartisan process we have established,” Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the top Republican on the House education committee, wrote in an e-mail. “Members on both sides of the aisle agree on the need for reform, but we also recognize it’s more important to get it right than to get it done quickly. That’s why we’ve avoided arbitrary or artificial deadlines.”

Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the senior Republican on the Senate education committee, echoed that sentiment during a recent hearing. He said he’d like to continue to work on reauthorization this year, but also said that he doesn’t want to be tied to an “artificial timeline.”

Although congressional staff members say the Obama administration’s blueprint was a helpful jumping-off point, it left a lot of complicated questions for Congress to tackle. Among them: how states should craft accountability systems for students whose schools aren’t among the bottom 10 percent in academic performance, how assessments should be revamped, and just what “college- and career-ready” means.

Still, Mr. Klatt gave Secretary Duncan high marks for rolling up his sleeves and engaging in marathon meetings with congressional staff.

“It’s a tribute to Secretary Duncan that they have even gotten as far they have,” he said. “He has clearly been trying very hard, and he has been up there as much as any secretary ever, ... I give them an A for effort.”

Intraparty Divisions

Both political parties remain deeply divided on education, with Republicans at odds on the proper role for the federal government, and Democrats torn over whether to support policies such as expanded charter schools and merit pay for teachers.

That puts Rep. Miller, who has been a champion of labor, but has often bucked the teachers’ unions, in a difficult position.

“I wonder if he can produce a bill that the unions can stomach, and that he can stomach himself and still get bipartisan support,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy organization in Washington who served as an aide to Democrats on Capitol Hill for nearly three decades. “The unions are going to have some influence on the Democrats.”

For instance, he said, the administration wants to use test scores as a factor in determining some teachers’ salaries “and, to a lot of Democrats, that doesn’t sound right.”

The problem is compounded in an election year, when vulnerable Democrats will need the financing, and on-the-ground, get-out-the-vote help that the two national teachers’ unions can provide, Mr. Jennings said.

Republicans, who are expected to pick up seats in the 2010 midterm election, have little incentive to push for a bill this year, since their clout is likely to grow next year, Mr. Jennings said.

There are other important questions to be answered, at least in part through the appropriations process, including whether lawmakers will provide an extension for the Obama administration’s two key signature grant programs, the Race to the Top competition and the Investing in Innovation Fund. Both are one-time-only programs under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal economic-stimulus program, which begins phasing out this year.

And any agreements that are reached between the key players on ESEA policy are sure to inform next year’s action, Mr. Jennings said.

“Congress has a way of taking up where they left off, so if there are some agreements this year between Harkin and Enzi, they probably will be the beginning point next year for discussions,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2010 edition of Education Week as Policy Complexity, Political Calculus Cloud ESEA Reauthorization Outlook


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