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Harkin: No Specific Target Date Now for ESEA

A bit of ESEA history: First, the target date for a Senate markup of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was Easter. Then it was late spring. Now it's sometime this year.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, declined in an interview today to be more specific about exactly when the Senate education committee would get around to marking up the very, very long-overdue ESEA reauthorization bill (renewal has been pending since 2007, back when President George W. Bush was president). Harkin joked that he has not been able to meet any of the timelines he's set in the past. Right now, the committee doesn't even have a public draft of the legislation.

Harkin is negotiating with Sen. Michael B. Enzi, of Wyoming, the top Republican on the Senate, Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Harkin is chairman of both that committee and the panel that oversees education spending. Harkin said that the negotiations with Enzi have been going well, but issues including accountability, teachers, and comparability are still under debate. That sounds like pretty much like the whole ball of wax to me, or at least the important parts.

Inside-the-Beltway folks have been wondering whether Harkin would consider a Democratic-only bill, if he and Enzi can't reach agreement soon. But Harkin said he's really hoping for a bipartisan product. He acknowledged that the current political environment is difficult, but he thinks that the Senate has the ability to pass a bipartisan ESEA bill. He was less confident that the House would get Democratic support for its efforts. (So far, the House education committee has passed three ESEA renewal bills, two of which were very partisan.)

Some advocates are worried that it will be hard to gain GOP support for ESEA without Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former U.S. Secretary of Education who was initally negotiating with Harkin, but is not currently part of the Harkin-Enzi discussions. Many GOP lawmakers look to Alexander on K-12 issues and may not support a measure that doesn't have his seal of approval, advocates say. That could make passage on the Senate floor—already likely to be a challenge—much tougher.

So what about the Obama administration's Plan B of offering states waivers from key parts of the No Child Left Behind Act, the current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said he would like to begin offering those waivers in the fall, unless Congress is somehow able to reauthorize the law before the start of the school year. Looks like that will definitely not happen.

Harkin has been staunchly against those waivers; so has Rep. George Miller, of California, the top Democrat on the House education panel. But today Harkin said he'd be open to the idea, if the committee isn't able to make progress on the legislation. He declined, however, to specify an exact timeline for when it would be okay for the department to step in and offer states relief because Congress hasn't been able to get the job done.

Harkin's comments came in a quick interview after Duncan testified before the Senate Appropriations committee on the department's fiscal year 2012 budget. More on that here.

The hearing itself yielded one more nugget of ESEA news. Alexander said he thinks states should measure teacher effectiveness in part by looking at student achievement data.

That's not really big news. The interesting part is that Alexander thinks that a shift toward effectiveness might best be accomplished by offering states and districts incentives for overhauling teacher evaluation and compensation, through Teacher Incentive Fund competitive grants, as opposed to making it making measuring teacher effectiveness a requirement for getting Title I money (which was in the administration's ESEA proposal.)

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