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ESEA Bill Poised for Hearing, But Will it Gain Senate Traction?

UPDATED

On Tuesday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee holds its big hearing on legislation overhauling the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, with a cast that will feature teachers, administrators, and other education stakeholders.

Holding a hearing on a bill after the committee's already passed it is an unusual sequence. This hearing is basically a prerequisite for floor action to appease U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who felt that he did not get enough time to digest and discuss the bill before it moved through committee consideration last month.

Right after the panel's 15-7 vote on Oct. 20, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, one of the co-authors, said he'd like to move it to the Senate floor as soon as possible. He said he was hoping to get it passed in time to stop the Obama administration's package of waivers from current provisions of the law, now known as the No Child Left Behind Act., They're set to go into effect early next year. Harkin thinks it would more effective to have honest-to-goodness legislation.

So does that mean the Senate is going to pass this bill sometime soon? Not so fast.

First off, there's the issue of a full legislative calendar. Senators have to approve spending bills, and consider recommendations before year's end from the "supercommittee" charged with making long-range proposals for cutting the deficit.

"Ultimately, the decision to bring legislation to the floor rests with Senate leadership," said Justine Sessions, a spokeswoman for Harkin. "Chairman Harkin is working with them on the bipartisan legislation approved by the HELP Committee last month, but he is also aware that the Senate floor schedule is extremely crowded."

Secondly, advocates are hearing that, in part due to pressure from the administration, Senate leaders may hold off on putting the ESEA bill on the floor until and unless the House approves an overhaul of the law's accountability and teacher quality provisions. Although discussions have taken place between U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat, actual bipartisan legislation might be a tall order.

A Senate leadership aide said that the tight legislative timeline is a big part of the reason the bill is unlikely to see floor action this year. But the aide added that House action "definitely part of the calculus" in considering whether to move the bill.

A slowdown wouldn't be surprising because the administration has some major policy problems with the Senate bill sponsored by Harkin and Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., in particular with its teacher evaluation and accountability provisions.

Meanwhile, Republicans want to see changes to key pieces of the bill before it goes to the Senate floor. Those include scrapping language that would retain the highly qualified teacher provision, along with language requiring states to make "continuous improvement," and language requiring states to focus on schools with persisent achievement gaps.

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