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Postelection, Kline Talks ESEA Renewal, Fiscal Cliff, and Bipartisanship

One big election, and not much has changed. President Barack Obama will be back for four more years, the U.S. Senate is still in Democratic hands, and the U.S. House of Representatives is still GOP-controlled. That means, of course, that U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., is still at the helm of the House education committee.

So what does Kline envision for the next couple years? Can there be bipartisanship on K-12 and other issues?

Maybe, he told me in an interview today.

"I think both sides will probably still stick to principles. I certainly expect that to be the case on our side of the aisle," he said. He noted that House Speaker John Boehner said after Obama's win Tuesday that House Republicans "would be willing to work with anyone who was willing to reach out to us. ... There is pressure to get stuff done, and maybe that pressure will help us come together."

Does that mean we might actually see the long-awaited, seven-years overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act? That's another maybe. Kline's committee passed a series of bills—with only Republican support—about a year ago. And he anticipates another markup this year.

"The urgency in my mind is still there," he said. "We need to get legislation that will move us away from unilateral actions of the administration," he added, referring to the Obama administration's waivers giving states running room from key mandates of the No Child Left Behind law, the current version of ESEA. "States who have requested and even been granted these waivers are not happy with them," including his own home state of Minnesota, Kline said, in part because of their temporary nature.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the Senate education committee chairman, worked with Sen. Michael B. Enzi, the top GOP lawmaker on the Senate education panel, on a bill last year that got support from a small cluster of Republicans. The Kline and Harkin bills take vastly different approaches when it comes to school improvement, teacher evaluation, and competitive grants.

But, like the NCLB waivers that the U.S. Department of Education has offered, both bills get rid of adequate yearly progress—the accountability yard stick at the heart of the law—and give states way more leeway to intervene in most underperforming schools.

Kline said it was "very likely" that his committee will be doing more oversight on implementation of the waivers—an idea that Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., also floated in response to a question from reporters at the Education Writers' Association earlier this year.

"Our oversight responsibilities have certainly not lessened after the election," he said.

Does Kline expect any changes to the ESEA bills? There may be some "tweaks," Kline acknowledged, adding that it was too early to get into specifics. But it sounds like he's standing firm on keeping the requirement that states and districts create teacher-evaluation systems based in part on student outcomes—a key difference between Kline's bills and legislation introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who is in line to be the top Republican on the Senate education committee.

Alexander has made it known that he thinks the federal government should steer clear of mandating teacher evaluation. But Kline noted that there's bipartisan support for where he wants to go with teacher evaluation—Democrats have recently tried it in Chicago, he said, an obvious reference to the teachers' strike there.

He also singled out charter school policy as one area of potential bipartisan cooperation. Kline noted that he worked with Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House education committee, on charter school legislation that passed the House with "a good bipartisan vote. ... I think there are some places we can go to work together."

Of course, the first issue Congress will deal with is the fiscal cliff, which includes tax cuts that are about to expire, plus a series of planned, across the board cuts known as sequestration that are set to hit a broad swath of federal programs starting on Jan. 2 unless lawmakers act.

Kline said he doesn't necessarily see money as the most important lever for school improvement—and he still thinks that the federal government shouldn't be funding competitive-grant programs such as Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation.

But Kline feels strongly that the federal government should work to meet its obligation on special education funding. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the feds pledged to pick up 40 percent of the tab of the excess costs of serving students in special education, but have never come close to that. If it were up to him, Kline said, he'd like to try to protect special education funding as much as possible, and then work from there.

"It is apparent to me that there are going to have to be some spending cuts as we go forward, and I can't predict to you now what those are going to be," he said. "My preference is always to give the priority to special education funding and then work from there."

And Kline, like a lot of other folks, is really bummed out that Indiana Superintendent Tony Bennett lost his race last night. In fact, Kline brought it up, unprompted.

"I think Indiana made a bad mistake there," he said.

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