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Student-Achievement Goals at Issue in Senate NCLB Renewal Effort

Until recently, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee, and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the panel's top Republican, were in talks to see if there was any chance of getting a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the long-stalled No Child Left Behind Act together in this Congress. But now it's looking like the two lawmakers were unable to resolve fundamental disagreements, making an already very tough reauthorization process that much harder.

The reason: philosophical differences on a couple of key areas that scuttled the chance at bipartisanship between the chairman and ranking member, advocates and congressional aides say. Perhaps the biggest area of disagreement? Harkin would like to see states set goals for student achievement as they now must under the NCLB waivers granted by the U.S. Department of Education. (That's a big change from legislation he supported in the previous Congress.) Meanwhile, Alexander sees that as too much federal intrusion, advocates say.

In including a requirement that states set student-achievement goals in the bill, Harkin is hoping that he can help build on the momentum of the waivers, which are now in place in 34 states and the District of Columbia, a Senate Democratic aide said. The administration had outlined the criteria for the waivers when the committee considered the bill back in 2011, but states hadn't yet applied.

States are executing waivers on their own terms, the aide said, so the waivers are the starting point. Many states have asked for—and Harkin is hoping to craft—a bill that doesn't make states go back to the drawing board after bringing stakeholders together to develop their waiver proposals in order to get the flexibility, the Democratic aide explained.

But Republicans see the overall direction of the still-in-progress bill as carving out too much of a role for the federal government.

"It's less a question about any of the individual provisions" a Republican aide said. "The underlying question is [about] freedom. We think state and local leaders should be free to improve their schools, Democrats think only Washington is smart enough or cares enough about how to improve education."

Back in 2011, the Senate education committee approved a bill, which Alexander reluctantly supported, that essentially didn't include achievement targets—and got absolutely clobbered by business groups and the civil rights community, including groups representing students in special education, who have long seen Harkin as a champion.

Goals were a sensitive issue even during committee consideration of the bill. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., introduced an amendment that would have called for states to set goals for student achievement that are similar to the parameters spelled out in the administration's ESEA waivers. But he then withdrew it so the bill could move forward without dealing with the super-sticky issue.

What's more, the still-under-discussion measure will likely call for states to create teacher evaluation systems based in part on student achievement, as they must now under the waivers. The goal will be to bolster teacher professional development, the Democratic aide said. The focus will be on supporting professionals in the classroom with the meaningful feedback and targeted professional development they need, the aide added.

Teacher evaluation was another major sticking point last time. When the Harkin bill was first introduced as a draft in 2011, it included a provision that would have required states and districts to craft teacher-evaluation systems based in part on student achievement. But Republicans (including Alexander) saw that provision as too much of a federal intrusion and worked to get the language out of the bill. Needless to say, the National Education Association was pretty happy about that development, and Democrats on the committee were spared from having to choose between supporting the NEA and voting with Harkin and the administration. This is an issue to watch again this time around.

The still-in-the-works measure will also include some provisions on early childhood education, but it wouldn't codify the administration's proposed prekindergarten expansion. Instead, Harkin is working separately on more ambitious prekindergarten legislation. (He wrote an op-ed in The Hill newspaper about it, which you can check out here.)

Overall, it sounds to me like the new Senate bill will be a lot closer to the administration's vision for ESEA renewal. (U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan applauded the bipartisan process back in 2011, but didn't sound too happy with much else.)

While bipartisanship is likely to be much tougher without Alexander, it's too soon to say for sure that the bill would not get some Republican support. GOP Sens. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming and Mark Kirk of Illinois also voted for the 2011 bill, but, like Alexander, both expressed serious misgivings about pieces of it. Plus, this in-progress measure would appear to call for a stronger federal role in some areas than the 2011 version.

Sen. Harkin plans to work with his Democratic colleagues to craft a proposal that Republicans will have an opportunity to review and contribute to, before introducing legislation, the Democratic aide said. Harkin and his staff are aiming to run an amicable process that involves working with Senators on both sides of the aisle, the aide added.

The Senate education panel is aiming to mark the bill up in June. That's roughly around the same time the House education committee, which is controlled by Republicans, may be considering its (likely Republican-only) bill.

The upshot: If the House and Senate committees do end up doing partisan bills, voters will be able to see where each party stands on K-12 issues—but because Congress is divided, states and districts won't get the reauthorization they crave. And, ultimately, the Obama administration officials will need some kind of a law in place before leaving office if they want to build on some of the changes they've helped to bring about through waivers and competitive grants.

Still, advocates aren't surprised that Harkin and Alexander weren't able to come to an agreement. Instead, at least one advocate gave the two lawmakers credit for even giving it a shot, considering how partisan and broken Congress is these days.

"They could have just walked away, but they both genuinely want to see the bill reauthorized and consider it their job," the advocate said.

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