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ESEA Renewal a Priority, White House Adviser Says

If you're getting an early start on crafting your 2011 State of the Union drinking game, you may want to include these words: "education," "college," "ESEA," and "reauthorization."

Melody Barnes, who leads President Barack Obama's Domestic Policy Council, told an audience at an Education Week event today in Washington that President Obama is going to make reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act a "top" priority in the new year. And he wants both Democrats and Republicans on board.

She told attendees at "Reform, Money, and Politics: The Post-Election Outlook for American Education" that renewing the bill in a bipartisan way "gives us the ability to build on the reform momentum" spurred by Race to the Top and other programs. And she said that the public is not going to tolerate "partisan tussling and dead-end ideological debates" when it comes to overhauling our schools.

But it's unclear whether the political climate will be ripe for reauthorization. Earlier in the day, Carmel Martin, the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development for the U.S. Department of Education, said that the current version of ESEA, the No Child Left Behind Act, is outdated. And two key Capitol Hill aides generally agreed with that assessment.

All expressed cautious optimism about a reauthorization, particularly given that the Democratic and Republican leaders involved have a history of reaching across the aisle. But none seemed to think it would be a slam-dunk, although everyone cautioned it's too early to read the political tea-leaves. The newly elected (more conservative) Congress hasn't even arrived in Washington yet.

But other 2011 predictions were less sunny. A definite possibility, according to Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin: A government shutdown over spending issues.

"Our politics have gotten exponentially more polarized," he said.

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