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Congress' Dysfunction Hurts K-12, Senator Warns

There's a lot of action around the country on education policy, but Congress can't take credit for almost any of it, says U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., the former Denver schools chief, and the Obama administration's K-12 point man in the Senate.

Campaign 2012

"There are things happening, but they're happening at the state and local level," he told me today, citing, for example, his home state's new accountability system, which aims to provide a clearer-than-ever picture of student level achievement data. But up on Capitol Hill, "we think we're in this war between Republicans and Democrats."

Exhibit A on the dysfunction: Congress can't seem to pass a bipartisan reauthorization of Elementary and Secondary Education Act, something Bennet thinks has got to happen.

He likes the administration's back-up plan (waivers), saying they will have a "positive" influence on the ultimate renewal. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was right to offer them, he told me. "We are not governing," he said of Congress. "Arne didn't have a choice."

Some inside baseball: Bennet introduced (then withdrew) an amendment calling for states to create accountability systems that look similar to the ones in the waivers during consideration of an ESEA renewal bill, but which many in the civil rights and business community worried would weaken accountability. More here.

Does Bennet think GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney would undo a lot of what Obama has done on education, including waivers?

"I can't tell what's in his education agenda," Bennet said.

I asked him why we aren't hearing more about Obama's education record—Race to the Top, teacher evaluation—on the campaign trail. Is the administration shying away from its most prominent (and controversial) K-12 accomplishments?

No, Bennet told me. It's just that education itself hasn't been a big part of the 2012 debate.

"I think it reflects that we're not at a point yet in this country where people are voting on education at high levels," he said. Even though education is "largely a state and local responsibility, we have a vital national interest in it. ... K-12 education isn't nearly the national priority that it needs to be."

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