Is ESEA Reauth a Done Deal?

For months now, the popular wisdom has been that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would be reauthorized in 2011 (only three or so years late).  After all, John Kline (MN), the incoming House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman, and EdSec Arne Duncan have never been that far off on what they wanted from the law.  Duncan's blueprint has been public record since March.  Kline has been hoping for more local control and greater attention on rural schools, two issues Duncan seems fine with.  Their only significant difference is that Duncan is the champion of Race to the Top and Kline would like to see the program carted off to an early death.  Otherwise, there is a lot to work with in the middle.

Following Tuesday's elections, folks (including Eduflack) have been quick to say that education is the one issue Democrats and Republicans can probably agree on (to a degree) in the coming year.  If both sides are looking for a quick win and a chance to show they stand FOR something and can move something forward, ESEA is likely it.  The outstanding question, to many, is whether Hill Republicans want to give the White House and the Dems such a quick win.

Let's be clear.  We aren't talking about a comprehensive overhaul of No Child Left Behind.  When you take the March 2010 ESEA Blueprint, and mix in current political realities, we are really talking about a minor remodel of the law, not a rebuild.  Additional flexibility.  Revised accountability measures.  Greater collaboration.  More carrot and less stick.  A kinder, gentler (and now level-funded) NCLB if you will.

Last week's congressional elections make pretty clear that any ESEA reauth likely means a new law that is level funded.  The incoming class (many of who ran on a platform to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education) is not looking to increase Duncan's budget.  And those cockeyed optimists who believe a lame duck congress passing an omnibus appropriations bill means a third round of RttT clearly haven't been listening to Kline or a number of others who can undo in two months that which is done in the coming weeks. 

But are we missing the bigger story in the reauthorization debate?  Most seem to couch this as a Democrats versus Republicans issue, failing to see what current House Ed Committee Chairman George Miller (CA) and Kline have been moving a good draft forward for much of this year.  And both Miller and Kline seem to be in tune with most of the priorities coming out of Maryland Avenue.

Instead, isn't the real debate between the House and the Senate?  Even when both chambers were controlled by Dems and all Dems were complaining about NCLB, we didn't see a shared vision.  If we couldn't get a Dem Administration, a Dem House, and a Dem Senate to agree on K-12 education, what makes tomorrow different?

Has Sen. Tom Harkin (IA) been the stumbling block?  Harkin controls both the Senate HELP Committee and the appropriations subcommittee that oversees education funding.  While the senior senator from Iowa has held numerous hearings on specific issues related to ESEA, we haven't seen the trial balloon drafts we come to expect during the reauth process.  In fact, the Senate has been downright silent regarding its hopes and dreams for next-gen ESEA.  So even if Duncan and Kline come to agreement on a bill that could work for their constituencies, will Harkin join in the fun?

In all honesty, we simply don't know if ESEA is a priority for either the House or the Senate.  Both committees have a significant number of TBDs on the membership roster for the coming congress.  When we hear the list of priorities for the new House, education simply isn't on the list.  And we are hearing nothing coming out of the Senate.

If Duncan is smart, he just prepares to work under the confines of the current NCLB.  He can do most of what he wants anyway, with the current law and some guidance (even of the non-regulatory variety) to make the shifts proposed in his blueprint.  Is it ideal, no.  But it may be the best choice in the current environment.
   

 

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