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Senate Education Panel Seems Fairly Happy With ESEA Blueprint

Maybe the senators were too busy dealing with health care and student loans to think of many zingers for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan this morning, or maybe they really do like the direction of the Obama administration's blueprint for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Either way, the tone of a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing at which Duncan testified on the administration's plan was surprisingly congenial, with key players (including Republicans) praising both Duncan and the draft.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the committee's chairman, who also oversees the panel that deals with education spending, said Duncan is the right guy for his job at the right time.

"I appreciate that you're willing to have this kind of vision for the future," he told Duncan. "I'm working with you and the administration to make sure we have the resources to implement this bold vision for the future."

Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the top Republican on the committee, said he thought that the blueprint stayed true to Duncan's promise to be tight on goals for achievement, but looser on districts and schools for how to get there.

His main beef is that there doesn't seem to be a good option for low-performing rural schools among the four turnaround models spelled out in both the blueprint and the regulations for $3.5 billion in school improvement money. Duncan told him those schools could try the so-called "transformation model" (which requires extended learning time, alternative pay, and a new instructional program, among other remedies).

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., called the blueprint "an excellent beginning." But he suggested that instead of trying to tackle a comprehensive reauthorization this year, Congress should just fix the parts of the No Child Left Behind Act (the current version of ESEA) that everyone seems to agree need fixing, such as the highly-qualified teacher provision, and the need for more nuanced accountability system.

"We greatly agree on a number of ... things," he said. "This is a very helpful blueprint."

In an interview after the hearing, Harkin didn't seem to be down for the targeted approach; he thinks reauthorization should address other issues important to schools, including health and early-childhood education.

But Alexander's question seemed to suggest that he thinks that there's agreement on the broad principles of the draft, especially the new elements that significantly address the accountability system at the heart of the law.

Other praise:

*Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he's "been fighting for years" to overhaul teacher training and was glad to see the administration addressed that in its blueprint.

*Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., a fairly liberal former Air America host, told Duncan, "I really love that you're focusing on progress and growth and not just hitting an arbitrary score."

Of course, it wasn't all sunshine and lollipops:

*Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., didn't sound too pleased that Duncan has proposed making money for teacher training competitive. She's worried that programs won't have an incentive to improve.

*Alexander said he's worried that rolling the Teacher Incentive Fund, which doles out grants for performance pay programs, into a broader funding stream aimed at improving teacher quality could diminish the program's effectiveness.

*Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., an important moderate voice, said he's worried that the Title I formula shortchanges some states.

The big news out of the hearing wasn't actually directly related to ESEA. After extolling the virtues of early childhood education over and over during the hearing, Harkin said, "It's a shame that we lost that $10 billion for early childhood education in the loan bill. We'll try to save some of it." (For background, read this entry from last week.)

He told reporters after the hearing that negotiations are still pending and that he thinks the loan change will be in health care overhaul bill, with some of the savings directed at funding Pell Grants.

Reading between the lines: It sounded to me like Harkin thinks, given the current state of negotiations, that Congress won't have much money for the early-learning challenge fund or new community college program originally proposed in the version of the bill that passed the House of Representatives last fall.

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