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What’s the State of Play on ESEA Reauthorization?

By Alyson Klein — October 20, 2015 2 min read
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The pending departure of Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the speaker of the House, seems to have lit a fire under negotiations on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

In fact, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Monday that it could actually “help” ESEA’s chances if Boehner stuck around for a few more weeks.

Aides for all four of the lawmakers that will be involved in crafting a “conference report” (that’s Congress-speak for a compromise bill developed after both the House and Senate have passed competing versions) have been working very, very hard behind the scenes to reach agreement. The key lawmakers here are: Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., and Bobby Scott, D-Va.

Issues on the table include accountability, school choice, and just how many (and which) federal education programs should be included in the final version of the bill.

Boehner’s pending resignation is a factor, because after he leaves office, the political landscape could get much tougher for ESEA. A new speaker, who needs support from House conservatives, might not want to put a bill on the floor that will need Democratic votes to pass, as an ESEA compromise would.

But Boehner isn’t expected to stick around much past November, at the latest. So finishing a bill in time for him to shepherd it through could mean getting a conference report done by the end of this month and moving it to the floor of the House next month. That’s a pretty ambitious turnaround time, especially considering how much Congress has on its plate, including a speaker election, raising the debt ceiling, and spending bills.

For now, the lead Senate sponsors aren’t publicly pinning themselves to a particular deadline.

“We’re moving on a good path to finish the bill up,” said Alexander in a quick interview in the Capitol Tuesday. He’s hopeful, he said, that the bill can be done by the end of the year. “It’s up to the House of Representatives who the speaker will be when that happens.”

And, in another quick interview, Murray had a similar take. ESEA is an important priority, she said. But she didn’t cite a particular timeframe for finishing the work.

So where do the negotiations stand? It’s kind of a black box right now, without a lot of information coming out.

Some guesses: Many folks are betting that, when all is said and done, the bill will include some sort of early childhood program, since that’s such a huge priority for President Barack Obama, and for Murray (who is, after all, a former preschool teacher).

The Obama administration has also pushed hard—and very publicly—for some sort of language calling for states to turnaround their 5 percent of lowest performing schools, so that might make it in, too. That provision wasn’t part of the House’s Republican-only bill. The Senate’s bipartisan bill requires states to monitor district turnarounds and step in if things aren’t going well. (Compare and contrast the bills here.)

And it’s likely that the compromise probably won’t have the kind of broad Title I portability language that’s in the Republican-only measure passed by the House. But there might be another way to promote school choice. The Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli had this suggestion on Twitter:

But it’s all guesswork at this point.

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