Bipartisan negotiations have broken down on what might be the most low-key and wonkiest education measure ever: the reauthorization of the Education Sciences Reform Act or ESRA, which governs the Institute of Education Sciences. A part of the reason? Spending levels. If you were looking for a poster-child for how congressional dysfunction is affecting lawmakers' ability to get even the smallest things done, this may be it.
"We got about 95 percent agreement on a final product, but there are a couple outstanding issues that have been difficult to resolve," said Alexandra Sollberger, a spokeswoman for Rep. John Kline, the chairman of the House education committee, in an email. "While we are disappointed that all that hard work has stalled, we remain hopeful that progress can still be made to reauthorize the Education Sciences Reform Act in the new year."
"At a time when students and schools are making big transitions to new standards, assessments, and ways of learning, federal investment in research to know what works is more important than ever," said Julia Krahe, a spokeswoman for Rep. George Miller, D-Calif, the top Democrat on the House education committee. "It's unfortunate that the reauthorization won't move forward at this time, but a lot of progress was made. We are committed to continuing the conversation on strengthening this law so that students and teachers will be able to benefit from federal investments in this important research."
So what happened?
House Republicans and House Democrats, who for decades had put together bipartisan reauthorizations of everything from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to the Higher Education Act haven't been able to cooperate on much lately.
But ESRA, which was originally crafted back in 2002 with lots of cross-aisle collaboration (even if discussions did become contentious at times) and little fanfare, was supposed to be an exception. After a very tense, difficult, and ultimately totally partisan ESEA reauthorization in the House, advocates were hoping that a bipartisan ESRA negotiation could set the stage for further bipartisan action on bigger bills, including HEA and career and technical education.
Apparently, Kline and Miller came very close, coming to an agreement on virtually all of the major policy pieces in the bill.
So what was the biggest sticking point? Money. Specifically, authorization levels. For the record, authorization levels send an important signal about how much Congress wants to spend on a particular program, but they aren't binding.
Some inside baseball: Congress has been locked in a series of budget fights. To tamp down on spending levels, House Republicans have tried to keep authorization levels in new legislation at current spending levels (which includes the across-the-board sequestration cuts). Needless to say, this does not make Democrats, including Miller, who has vehemently argued against the sequester cuts, very happy.
The bipartisan draft legislation made a special concession on this issue. It authorized IES at fiscal year 2012 funding levels, the year before the sequester hit. The problem? It did this for the next five years, meaning that, at least on paper, IES would have no room to grow.
Authorization levels don't actually provide money for a program, they just specify how much Congress would like to spend. And it's worth noting that lawmakers frequently blow past authorization levels—or fail to meet them. Aides say, however, that they are starting to play a more prominent role in appropriations discussions.
In the past, lawmakers have gotten around this sticky, but highly symbolic, issue by putting in a sort of catch-all phrase in legislation, saying they'll provide "such sums as necessary" for a program. But some GOP lawmakers in the House are worried that opens the door to runaway spending, so that language wasn't permitted in ESRA.
That wasn't a deal breaker for some advocacy groups, including the Knowledge Alliance, which had a lot of positive things to say about some of the policy changes in a draft bill that was shared with some advocates. While the group probably would have noted the authorizations caps in its letter on the legislation, it would not have opposed the legislation on those grounds, said Michele McLaughlin, the executive director.
But other advocacy groups were worried about the implications for the future of education research.
The research agenda for special education would have been expanded under the draft legislation, which disabilities advocates liked. But, with caps on authorization levels, the money may not have been there to make the new activities happen, said Lindsay Jones, the director of public policy and advocacy of the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
"We want to expand the agenda and we don't want to do it in name only," she said. "It's too important."
Here's the thing: The authorization question isn't an ESRA issue alone. Every single piece of legislation, from Career and Tech education to ESEA, will need to address authorization levels. And, since government continues to be divided, almost all legislation will have to be bipartisan, so the issue will have to be worked out one way or another.
Advocates are disappointed. "We had been hoping that ESRA would break the logjam" when it comes to education legislation, McLaughlin said.
Not all education watchers are discouraged by the impasse, however.
'There's a lot of good news packed into there," former IES Director Grover "Russ" Whitehurst told my colleague, Sarah Sparks, of Inside School Research. He noted that Democrats and Republicans on the House committee staff "had agreed on almost everything. The authorization level is a leadership issue, not something in the Education and Workforce Committee staff," Whitehurst said.
He's confident the reauthorization negotiations will come back online in the spring, after the next round of budget negotiations are settled.
"Of course there's frustration: People are working very hard on this and victory was snatched out of their hands by something that was totally irrelevant to what they were working on. But it could have been much worse; there could have been very partisan disagreements, and that didn't happen. I'm very encouraged that there could be bipartisan agreement on the fundamentals and there was no prospect of dramatic restructuring, which would have been terrible," he said.
"I'm still confident the [ESRA] reauthorization will be passed in the next year; it may be the only education bill passed in the next year," Whitehurst said.
Assistant Editor Sarah Sparks contributed to this story.