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What’s Up in Congress? Not Much Real Action, State Chiefs Hear

By Alyson Klein — March 27, 2012 5 min read
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Chief state school officers from all over the country came up to Washington this week to hear lawmakers explain why one of their top federal priorities —an honest-to-goodness reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as opposed to just waivers from the U.S. Department of Education—won’t get done this year.

Most folks who are watching movement on education, or just about anything in Congress, are well aware of the never-ending stalemate when it comes to ESEA renewal—not to mention the federal budget.

The lack of action is still frustrating and depressing to some state education officials.

“It seems like [the system] isn’t working at all. I definitely think there’s paralysis,” said Terry Holliday, Kentucky’s education chief, in an interview during the Council of Chief State School Officers’ annual legislative conference.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., the former Denver schools chief and a rising star on K-12 education policy in Congress, feels their pain.

“We have been unable, in our dysfunction, to move ESEA forward,” he told the chiefs in a wide-ranging speech.

But Bennet had a message for K-12 state education leaders to give their delegations in meetings on Capitol Hill this week: “You don’t have to accept the political conversation that we’re having here. ... When you’re on the Hill make sure people understand that we need this bill [ESEA] to be reauthorized. We’re not going to do it right now,” he conceded. “But it will help that you were here and you said that.”

Both the House and Senate education committees have approved reauthorization bills, but those measures are currently gathering legislative dust.

U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who voted against the version of the GOP-only bills that passed out of the House committee last month, said that when it comes to broad principles, he’s on the same page as some of his Republican colleagues.

“When I sit down with [Sen.] Lamar Alexander and [Rep.] John Kline what we’re talking about is so close,” he said, referring to a senior members of the Senate education committee and the chairman of the House education committee.

But the politically charged atmosphere on Capitol Hill is hard to overcome. “We’ve never had education dragged into this vortex. Education has always been above it. Now we find ourselves sitting in a partisan firefight.”

Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of CCSSO, probably put the problem best. “It [doesn’t] appear that we [have] a way out of this mess right now,” he told Miller. “It’s frustrating to us.”

In response, Miller hinted at the big problems underlying the reauthorization debate.

“No Child Left Behind is fundamentally a civil rights issue,” he said. “With NCLB, clearly the nation got a bit of a wake-up call on how students are performing, or not performing, in our schools.”

What that translates to: No one seems to agree yet on the right balance when it comes to the federal role in setting goals for student achievement. The same goes for making sure that states and schools are held accountable for the achievement of particular groups of students, such as English-language learners. Miller, for one, wants stronger protections for such students.

Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, also spoke to the group. He said that, in a perfect world, he’d want to see the federal government take the same role in K-12 policy that it takes in higher education, acting as a sort of hands-mostly-off clearing house of information. He wants to get as close to that in ESEA reauthorization as he can, but knows that he’ll have to work across the aisle and compromise.

There are folks in both parties who want to wait until after the election to see if there are more favorable political conditions before tackling reauthorization. But Alexander, who voted for the bipartisan bill that passed out of the Senate committee, is not in that camp. He wants something done sooner rather than later, he told the chiefs.

Money Matters

Congress’ dysfunction doesn’t have implications just for K-12 policy. It matters for spending, too. If lawmakers can’t get their act together, there could also be drastic cuts to just about every education program as part of across-the-board domestic spending cuts that are set to kick in as early as January 2013.

Chiefs are getting nervous about that possibility, known as “sequestration” in Inside-the-Beltway speak. It’s the budget monster everyone in federal education advocacy fears. If lawmakers don’t act by January, cuts estimated at 7.8 percent to 9.1 percent, will hit just about every federal education program. The federal budget cuts, which would effect both domestic and military spending, were put in place as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling last year.

If sequestration happens, “You’re going to have to have a lot more bake sales,” Bennet told the state chiefs.

Tom Luna, the Republican schools chief from Idaho and the president of CCSSO, asked Alexander if he had any plans to help avert the cuts. Alexander told Luna he’d work with his colleagues to do what he could.

Later in the day, Kline got the same question. He’s concerned about the impact of sequestration on education and on defense, he told the chiefs.

“Almost all of us hate sequestration,” he said. “It was set up to be so bad that it would never happen.”

Another interesting tidbit:

Bennet, who has a reformer-ey reputation, isn’t sorry that the Senate version of the ESEA bill didn’t ultimately require teacher evaluation based in part on student outcomes. Instead, the bill makes this voluntary. (Lots of history on that here.) A requirement would just lead to “ten years of cruddy implementation,” Bennet said.

But Miller, who sees eye-to-eye with Bennet on a lot of other K-12 issues and is a fan of using student outcomes to inform teacher evaluation, is predicting that some teacher language along those lines makes it into the final version of the bill.

“It’s hard to believe you’ll have a comprehensive reauthorization bill leave Congress without teacher evaluation,” Miller said.

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