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Bipartisanship on K-12 Is the Name of the Game, for Now

Nearly all the folks I spoke to after the State of the Union (including ESEA VIP Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.) were on message that the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act can be a chance for both parties to come together.

And there were other signs that lawmakers want to send a message that education is something they can all work together on.

Moments after the speech, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, introduced a joint statement with Sen. Mike Enzi, the top Republican on the panel, saying basically, yes, we want to collaborate on K-12 and make it a priority.

The content wasn't unusual, but as far as I can remember, this is the first time the two of them have put out a joint reaction to something related to ESEA.

"We have expressed a commitment to fix the No Child Left Behind Act, and we hope President Obama's remarks add to the momentum of this bipartisan effort," they said. "This Congress, we must rewrite this law to create a better and more flexible education system that prepares our nation's students for success in college, careers and the global economy."

And the two top members of the House Education and the Workforce committee (the chairman, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., and the top Democrat, Rep. George Miller of California) sat together last night, and other members of the panel were nearby.

Still, in an interview with reporters this morning, Kline said he's still working on getting the new members of the panel up to speed on ESEA. But, among the few members he's talked to, there are some qualms about the administration's approach.

"We haven't had a chance to get into the details," Kline said. "I know some of the members campaigned and said very loudly that there shouldn't be a Department of Education." But in talking to some new members, he heard "strong concerns about [the administration's] blueprint, and strong concerns about No Child Left Behind."

Still, he added "there is a common, bipartisan understanding that we have to do something."

And Kline, for one, doesn't want to see the administration get the extension it's seeking for Race to the Top 2.0. He thinks the first round of grants was problematic. While Obama urged Congress to invest in education while holding down discretionary spending in general, Kline doesn't seem to think that's in the cards.

"There is no doubt in my mind that education will be reduced as well," he said, although he wants to see special education made a priority.

Kline is also sticking with his "bite-size" approach to reauthorizing the law, which might mean that Congress fixes some parts of the law, then goes back and revisits others.

Miller told me in an interview before the speech that he thinks that approach may make things a bit trickier, since so many parts of the law impact others. But he said that he doesn't want to prejudge the idea until he sees what Kline and the Republicans propose.

Kline also couldn't give an exact time line for when he expected to have a bill on the floor. He said there would be open debate and hearings on the reauthorization. And he said he understands that there is a "perception that we need to move along fairly quickly" since 2012 is a presidential election year.

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