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Reading the Tea Leaves as 'Big 8' Meet on ESEA

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The "Big 8" lawmakers who chair the committees and subcommittees charged with K-12 policy held a closed meeting Wednesday on Capitol Hill with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Melody Barnes, the White House's point person on education. The department and the White House called the meeting, congressional sources told me, to gauge progress on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

After the meeting, I was able to chat very briefly with Barnes; Duncan; Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee; Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the top Republican on the panel; and the top Republican and Democrat on the House subcommittee that oversees K-12 education, Reps. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., and Mike Castle R-Del.

What they all said (paraphrasing here):

The meeting itself was very congenial, and staffers will continue to work in a bipartisan way to complete the reauthorization, ideally sooner rather than later. Every single person agreed that the current version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act, is flawed and needs to be changed. Everyone gave the secretary high marks for an inclusive process.

What none of them said:

The reauthorization will definitely get done by the end of this Congress, the time line the administration had originally been shooting for. Although everyone stressed that the work will continue, absolutely no one committed to any sort of specific time line.

Given that it's already the middle of June, I'm guessing that means that it's going to be an uphill battle to complete the bill this year. There had been some speculation among lobbyists that the House education panel was shooting to mark up a bill this summer, possibly even next month, but Miller didn't confirm that one way or the other.

Still, if staff and lawmakers are going to continue discussions, it's important to pay attention to the areas in which they are able to reach agreement. Lawmakers have a way of picking up where they leave off on bills like this.

Kline told me that the group discussed some such policy areas, including the need for more local flexibility and the need to support charter schools. (He did note that not everyone agrees on the number of charter schools ... which I think is a reference to the administration's push, in Race to the Top, to get states to raise their charter caps.)

Duncan said there was "lots of good camaradarie" in the room and that some even said the process was a model for how Congress should tackle issues in a bipartisan way. And he wants to make sure the eventual reauthorization has both GOP and Democratic support—he hoped the renewal would be as non-political as possible.

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