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Can ESEA Renewal Be Bipartisan?

Yesterday, Obama administration officials made it clear that a) they want reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to happen this year and b) they want it to be bipartisan.

So do key Republicans on the House Education and Labor Committee think that's possible? Back in 2007, the panel attempted to reauthorize the ESEA, whose current version is the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, but never gained much traction.

Sounds like the picture is mixed this time around. Here's a snippet from a statement that Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the top Republican on the House education committee put out right after the speech:

There is no doubt we need to reform our federal education laws, and Republicans are anxious to enact policies that empower parents, teachers, and communities to provide a quality education for all our nation's students. The President and Education Secretary Duncan have indicated a surprising willingness to take on the education special interests. For too long, unions and advocacy groups have stood in the way of meaningful reform. I am ready to stand alongside this Administration in their efforts to loosen the grip of special interests on our schools and put parents and communities back in control of education.

The statement goes on to chide the administration for its student-loan proposal, which was generally a partisan issue in the House.

And last night, after the speech, I caught up with Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., the top Republican on the subcommittee that oversees K-12 eduction policy. (Along with Kline, he's one of the "Big 8" the administration is meeting with about the bill. Also, he's running for the Senate.)

"If there's a major piece of legislation that has a chance to be bipartisan, this is it," Castle said, although he cautioned that "it's not a slam dunk." Preliminary talks have "gotten off to a good start, he said, but the administration will need to continue to reach out GOP lawmakers.

And he said he doesn't see Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as "a politically motivated person." He's glad that Duncan has talked so much about policies likely to appeal to Republicans, such as merit pay and charter schools.

I also talked to Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, a senior committee member who tends to be much more conservative than Castle. He said he hoped that there could be a bipartisan renewal of the ESEA, but that it is a long shot. "The words are wonderful," he said. "But the fact of the matter is we haven't seen any bipartisanship out of this administration."

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