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House Panel Explores Innovation, Flexibility for New ESEA

The federal government may be careening towards a shutdown, but the House Education and the Workforce Committee is still working (or at least holding hearings) on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

As Politics K-12 readers know, there are plenty of hurdles to getting the bill done this year, and the window for getting something completed by the administration's late August deadline is rapidly closing. But at least the rhetoric on education remains collegial. Today's hearing seemed like a big bipartisan love fest compared to the sniping from both sides of the aisle on the budget. Lawmakers generally praised each others' efforts and even joked around a little.

And, in the very broadest sense, the top folks on the committee are still singing off the same sheet of music. Everyone wants more flexibility at the local level and a leaner federal role, including the key witnesses at the hearing, all of whom were practioners.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the ranking member on the committee, had a great line when he said that the law needs to move from "an old UNIVAC computer" to "an iPad", meaning a sleeker, thinner, more efficient law.

And Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the panel, said: "Washington has to move in a new direction. States and schools should be able to set their own innovative priorities and receive maximum flexibility to advance those priorities. If a school determines greater resources are better spent on reading or new technologies, then it should be free to adjust its budget to reflect the reality of its classrooms."

Although most of the ESEA action seems to be on the Senate side, Kline and his staff have been working to get the newest members of the committee up to speed on the law and get a sense of where they stand and what they are hearing from folks in their own districts.

Kline has long said he's likely to break the reauthorization up into more manageable pieces. And it sounds like that process could start soon. Here's what he said at the hearing today:

"I do believe that with this growing realization that we have to move in some of the fundamental pieces, we are going to be able to start moving forward as early as next month with stages of making some of the corrections we have been talking about here today."

Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., the former chairman of the committee, noted that this reauthorization has been in the works for years.

"If somebody were judging us like we're judging these schools, we'd probably be a failing Congress," he joked.

Of course, agreeing on top-line principles is a lot easier than agreeing on details. And it's hard to imagine too much serious negotiating on ESEA going on during a shutdown.

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