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Miller on Waiver Renewals and Prospects for Breaking the Education Logjam

As we've told you before, every major education bill is currently pending, and it's unclear whether Congress—which has been locked in partisan paralysis for years—can move long-overdue reauthorizations of the Child Development Block Grant, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Workforce Investment Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and much more. 

I spoke to Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House education committee who worked with Republicans back in 2001 to get the No Child Left Behind Act enacted, about some of these issues, as well as the Obama administration's change of heart on waiver renewal. Some background: The administration had initially planned to place additional strings on states seeking to renew their waivers, particularly when it came to teacher quality measures. But then, they backtracked, and decided to make the process much more streamlined. Instead, the administration plans to write new regulations that would bolster existing equity requirements in the NCLB law. Much more in this story

And for a Republican perspective on similar issues, check out my recent interview with Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee.

Here's what Miller had to say:

On whether it's likely any education bill will get over the finish line by the end of this Congress:

I think, given the constraints that exist within the Republican caucus on legislation, it's pretty difficult to find a clear path for this legislation...

A good chunk of their caucus doesn't think that the federal government should be involved [in education]  at all. ... I understand that, and that's their viewpoint.  When you talk about what it really takes to get a piece of legislation to the president's desk and to become law, a lot of this is inconsistent with that. That's just the reality on the ground.

I have a pretty good legislative history and a pretty good legislative history on bipartisan [measures] on tough issues. It's very hard to see the path forward to the president's desk. ... 

We're now entering the election year, so this year has been lost ... This is not really a legislating Congress.

On whether ESEA will be reauthorized by the end of the Obama administration:

I think it's pretty hard to see how that happens. The gulf is wide across the board. The [House GOP] legislation essentially received no support from the business community, the education community, or the civil rights community.  ... That's a huge gulf within their caucus. (For more on who supported the House Republican bill, and who did not, read this story.<'a>)

On whether a potential lack of a completed ESEA bill will hinder Obama's legacy on education:

I think the only real narrative you would have is that this president was president at a time when [there was] the least-effective Congress in the history of the Congress. So ... life is timing, and he came here with a Congress that really isn't interested in reauthorizations. ... It essentially has very little to do with the president. It has a whole lot to do with this split between the Republican Party and the ability of outside groups to intimidate the people within the Republican caucus."

On whether states would continue with teacher evaluation, turning around low-performing schools and higher standards without an ESEA reauthorization:

 I'm very optimistic about a lot of those issues. ... This is one of the most exciting times for educational improvement. ... The states are going to roar ahead without us if necessary. This administration has made it clear they're willing to try and encourage those types of positive changes in the educational environment, and it's just the Congress that's getting left behind.

On the administration's change of heart on the waiver renewal process:

I think it was a realistic move that I was probably not the happiest guy in town about. We're watching it very closely because it's a very slippery slope. You loosen things up and the next person wants it more loose and more loose. And we've had discussions with the secretary and Department of Ed., [on] meeting their obligations on equity for all students to have a shot at a first class education.

I'm telling them they have to be very careful. There's a lot of pressure. Let's remember, No Child Left Behind is about a civil rights law. It's about providing poor and minority children, students with disabilities an equal shot at that education. From the time it was passed to now, a lot of states and local districts would like to not quite meet that mandate. ....

One person's modification can be another person's massive loophole. I'm not prejudging, I just want them to make sure that they fully understand each one of these steps has very substantial risks in people interpreting it against educational equity.

(It sounds like Miller is in the same camp as the Education Trust and similar civil rights groups. )

On whether the new rules should take a step forward when it comes to equitable distribution of teachers, an unequivocal yes:

Get on with it.

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