My name is Eduflack, and I am a natural-born cynic. All day, I have been reading the unbridled optimism that folks seem to have for a quick and easy reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In this morning’s Washington Post, House Education and Labor Committee members boldly declare their intentions to begin work on reauth next week. For Chairman George Miller (CA) and company, it is now full steam ahead. But I still have my doubts.
Congressional leaders are to be commended for moving forward in a bipartisan fashion. Last year, few thought we would see Miller and John Kline (MN) work together to move this important issue forward. Today, House Democrats and Republicans signaled it is time to improve No Child Left Behind and better align the federal law with the priorities and issues that have been moving forward over the past year. Issues like common core standards, the next iteration of AYP, teacher quality, and charter schools will likely take center stage right quick.
But how realistic are we being in saying that this will get done now, on the express timetable many are expecting? All parties involved have made clear this needs to be done by summer, in advance of the House of Representatives having to head back home and stand for re-election in November. This is particularly true of Democrats, many of whom may have to vote for a law that makes life a little tougher for the teachers’ unions that help get them elected every two years.
But let’s be frank about timing. First off, today’s big announcements are only coming out of the House of Representatives. We have yet to hear a similarly ambitious agenda from the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee or from Chairman Tom Harkin (IA) and Ranking Member Mike Enzi (WY). If we learned anything from issues such as climate change and health care, it is you need both sides of the Hill working in tandem to actually move legislation forward. The House can have the best of intentions, but unless the Senate is planning the same rapid reauthorization, this bill is going to get bogged down over on the senior circuit.
Second, let’s look at the calendar. Back in 2001, President George W. Bush made ESEA reauthorization priority number one. It was his first piece of legislation out of the box and he immediately enlisted the help of folks like Senator Ted Kennedy to move it. Despite the bipartisanship and the quick movement of both the House and Senate, it still took a full year to get NCLB through. Granted, 9-11 forced congressional priorities to change in the fall of 2001. But that team couldn’t get NCLB through in those first eight months. It is now the second half of February. Eight months puts us into October, which is completely untenable, particularly since congressional campaigns will begin in earnest come Labor Day. Can we really reauthorize ESEA in four or five months this time around? And can we do it when Congress is grappling with healthcare reform, a jobs bill, banking reform, climate control, and the full complement of annual appropriations bills?
Eduflack doesn’t want to be the skunk at this particular garden party, but I do want to be realistic. I would love to see Congress reauthorize ESEA by summer. I hope they are able to. But I also know that the Hill calendar is working against such an effort, particularly with other major issues still pending. I know that some in Congress may not have the stomach to pass an ESEA that will likely come with increased spending. I know there are the continuing debates between rural districts and the perceived urban thrust of the last year. And I know that many of the major issues involving ESEA — standards, AYP, data systems, Title II, and other issues — are not simple ideas that will be fixed in a hearing or two. So this takes real work.
Can Miller and Kline get such a bill out of committee by the end of spring? Yes, absolutely. Can it be voted out of the House, possibly. But will we see all of that, along with Senate action and conference committee, happen before our final trip to the beach in September? I just can’t see it … yet.
So that leaves me with one big question. Are we talking a wholesale reauthorization of ESEA and all of its Titles or are we talking targeted legislation that focuses on a couple of the big issues? Are we talking full-blown open-heart surgery or triage? Are we swinging for the fences or playing small ball?
If it is the former, we may be in for a tough stretch. If we are working toward the latter, and targeted amendment to NCLB, we could be in business.