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What Does Big Staff Turnover Mean for ESEA's Future?

If you happen to be a Senate education aide, chances are you've been to a lot of good-bye parties lately. A number of key staffers have left Capitol Hill since October, when the Senate education committee passed an Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization bill that has been collecting legislative dust ever since in Brokedown Congress.

K-12 education used to be the one issue that brought Democrats and Republicans around a negotiating table, but it now seems to be caught up in partisan—and intra-party—scuffles in both chambers. Meanwhile, the power seems to have shifted from the legislative branch to the U.S. Department of Education, which is pursuing many of its reauthorization goals through an ESEA waiver package. 

Since the passage of the Senate ESEA renewal bill (which gained the support of every Democrat on the committee, plus three Republicans), a big handful of staffers have left the Hill, including Bethany Little, who served as U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin's top education advisor; Peter Zamora, who was a top aide to Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the chairman of the subcommittee overseeing K-12 education; Celia Sims a long-time aide to Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the ranking Republican on the subcommittee that deals with K-12 policy; Glee Smith, a long-time aide for Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.; Jessica Cardichon, who worked for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.;and Sherry Lachman, who worked for Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. And two other staffers are about to start new jobs: Michele McLaughlin, a senior education policy advisor to Harkin; and Joy Silvern, who works for Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. (Inside baseball fans: Who am I missing from this list?)

These folks all ended up in great new jobs. But the lack of action in a Senate that lately hasn't seemed capable of much more than quorum calls may have also played a role in their decisions to leave. One departed aide made the choice to jump when it became clear Congress wasn't going to finish ESEA this year—or maybe even next year, or the year after that.

It's a bummer for those who are still working on the Hill. "It's getting lonely here," admitted one staffer who remains.

Capitol Hill jobs usually come with grueling hours and low pay, so there's always been high staff turnover. But the spate of recent departures may have broader implications, said a former congressional aide who continues to work in education policy. 

"My impression is that this goes beyond normal staff churn," said the former aide in an e-mail. "I think there's some of that, but I also think that—for a lot of the departing staff—if they were optimistic that by staying they would be a part of passing a strong new ESEA anytime soon, they would have stuck it out longer. There's an idealistic streak in a lot of Hill staffers, especially among those working on education, and I am talking about both D's and R's. But congressional dysfunction takes its toll and when there's no light at the end of the tunnel for actually accomplishing what you went there to accomplish, you start looking for another way to make a difference. "

And, thanks to the explosion of "entrepreneurial nonprofits", there are lots of places where one-time Hill staff can "stay involved in education in a way that feels like it will allow them to have considerable—perhaps even greater—impact outside of government than inside," the former aide added.

But, if the Hill can't continue to attract the best and the brightest, K-12 policy is going to suffer big time, the former aide added.

"I'm very worried about what the current dysfunction means for both the ability of committees and individual Senators and House members to attract top talent because high-caliber staffers are essential to passing a strong ESEA," the one-time staffer wrote.

Still, some staffers who remain on the Hill are optimistic about some of the new folks coming in. One GOP Senate aide had high praise for Mildred Otero, the new Senate education committee's new chief education counsel, calling her a "singular hire," who could have a "dramatic impact" on the committee's ability to collaborate in a bipartisan way.

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