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Alexander, GOP Senators Introduce Own ESEA Bills

UPDATED
A group of key U.S. Senate Republicans—led by Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, a former U.S. Secretary of Education—are going their own way on reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Back in January, the top lawmakers on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee all pledged to work together on a bipartisan, comprehensive bill to fix NCLB (the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act), but those talks stalled.

Today, Alexander, with Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, and Mark Kirk of Illinois, announced a series of bills aimed at renewing pieces of the law.

Another Alexander bill, set to be introduced tomorrow, would "clarify" Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's waiver authority. Alexander said he supports the secretary granting waivers from certain requirements of NCLB "based on what states have asked for." But he doesn't want to see the secretary spell out for states what they have to do in areas such as teacher evaluation.

First the political implications. Alexander insisted that the bills didn't mean that the senators didn't want to continue to work with the committee chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and the top Republican, Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, on renewal.

"We're moving ahead on two tracks," Alexander said. The bills, he said, are a chance for the Republicans to spur the process and outline their own vision for renewing the law. But he said the differences in discussions boiled down to just what the federal role should be in fixing schools.

On the waiver issue, Daren Briscoe, a spokesman for Secretary Duncan, said, "We think we have a very fair transparent process while ensuring continued rigorous accountability and improvement."

Politics K-12 analysis: This seems like a sign that these Republicans have lost faith in the bipartisan process, and are hoping that their own bill may either get Harkin-Enzi to act ... or to at least, from the GOP perspective, show that NCLB isn't being held up because Senate Republicans don't know how to fix it. It's also an obvious shot at Duncan's waiver process, which some critics have called a back-door reauthorization. Alexander, who once described Duncan as Obama's best cabinet pick, still had kind words for the secretary, calling him "exceptionally able."

Of course, the timing here is also pretty interesting. Duncan is about to release waivers, so there's another argument to be made, from the Democrats' perspective, that Senate Republicans are trying to steal the administration's thunder on giving states relief from NCLB.

In fact, one House Democratic aide familiar with the ESEA reauthorization process said the Senate GOP is "continuing to play politics with education policy, and not doing anything serious for kids." The move is "fully in line" with the GOP's desire not to give Obama a victory on education, the aide argued.

But a Senate GOP aide familiar with the drafting bills said the policy perscriptions largely reflect the administration's own renewal ideas. "Thematically and structurally this bill reflects the Administration's ask of Congress. If folks can't see that maybe they haven't actually read the bills or the blueprint," the aide said.

So what's the policy?

The Senate Republicans have broken ESEA into smaller bills that seem to closely mirror the ones that Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, is working on.

One bill would make changes to Title I. It would keep NCLB's annual testing schedule and require states to keep reporting on results for different groups of kids. The feds would still get to intervene in the lowest performing 5 percent of schools, but the measure would basically let states decide how to label and intervene in the other 95 percent of schools.

That would seem to take all the wind out of NCLB's sails, since states would get to decide how schools are doing, not the feds. But Isakson said states would still be on the hook because they would continue to have to explain how students are doing. "The hammer is transparency," he said.

Another bill would basically scrap the law's "highly qualified teacher" provision, which spells out that teachers have to have a bachelor's degree and be certified in their subject area. Instead, states would have to come up with their own evaluation systems. Another, modeled on a recent House bill, would bolster charter schools. And a fourth bill would consolidate 59 federal education programs into two flexible funding streams.

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