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Senate Efforts to Rewrite NCLB Turn Bipartisan

Party leaders on the Senate education committee began collaborating Friday morning to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act.

Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., respectively the chairman and ranking member of the panel, along with their staffs, plan to work over the next few weeks to produce a bipartisan bill.

The two will need to work out a long list of policy differences that include, in no short order:

  • What to do about Title I portability
  • Whether to add an early childhood education component to the law
  • How much control over accountability to give to states
  • What testing should look like under the new law (both seem to be leaning toward maintaining annual tests)
  • How much money education programs should get
  • What the federal role should be for school turnarounds
  • Which programs to keep and which to consolidate (Murray, for example, is a big proponent of including a strong literacy component in the law)

"We've agreed to move forward to develop a bipartisan chairman's mark to fix No Child Left Behind," Alexander and Murray said jointly in a statement on Friday. "Our staffs will begin working today with each other and with the staffs of other senators on the committee. We know our constituents expect us to fix this broken law and improve education for students, families, and communities across the country--and we expect to succeed."

Process Shift

This is a major departure from earlier this week, when Alexander said Wednesday at the Brookings Institute, that an NCLB update doesn't have to start with a bipartisan product.

"I'm trying to get a bipartisan process in place," he said.

But having Murray on board from the start will make the reauthorization process much smoother. Murray is known as an ace negotiator (remember the budget she was able to broker with House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.?) and her colleagues trust her.

Getting sign-off on a rewrite of the law from Murray, who holds a leadership position in her caucus, would effectively result in sign-off from the majority of Democrats in the Senate.

Instead, the process that Alexander had been setting up would have required him to pick off moderate Democrats here and there in order to cobble together 60 votes to move the bill through the Senate and onto conference.

Alexander had been emphatic about the fact that he's planning to keep the process open and bipartisan, even if the legislation itself didn't have Murray's support from the get-go. But that strategy irked Democrats, who argued that Alexander should have tried to come to an agreement with Murray on the legislation before introducing his discussion draft.

"It raises a lot of questions as to whether he [Alexander] really wants to get to a bipartisan bill," a Senate aide said earlier in the week about the process Alexander had been pursuing. "It seems like he's passing up a really good opportunity to get a partner on board who can help shepherd this through [the Senate]."

Former Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who has worn both the chairman and ranking member hats on NCLB reauthorization, said in an interview Wednesday that intense discussions between committee leaders on the front end of the legislative process can help out a lot down the road, even if the ranking member witholds their initial endorsement.

"People have have to those conversations so that you can start building some ownership," he said, in order to "promote the kind of buy-in that you'll need for the last act. The buyin may not be complete, but [there should be] some common sense of what the road map looks like."

Past Attempts

The last few attempts to reauthorize NCLB have resulted in largely partisan products. A rewrite bill cleared the House in 2013, with only GOP support. The year before that, in 2012, a similar bill was approved by the House education committee, also on a party-line vote. In those instances, though, Kline and Miller initally tried to reach an accord, Miller said. That back-and-forth gave Miller some sense of where Kline wanted to move, so he was able to help his GOP counterpart fend off amendments that neither of them liked.

Similarly, the last time the Senate education committee passed a rewrite of the NCLB law in the 2013, not a single Republican voted for it—though it also wasn't without a long period of conferencing between the both parties. 

In fact, the last time Democrats and Republicans showed the slightest hint of bipartisanship in overhauling the law was back in 2011, when three Republicans, including Alexander, gave the measure a thumbs-up. But even then, they did so hesitantly and were clear that they wouldn't support it on the Senate floor unless it was altered somewhat significantly.

So the fact that Alexander had been aiming for a bipartisan process, and not necessarily drafting a bipartisan bill, isn't unheard of.

But for now, it seems as though that strategy will take a backseat to bipartisan negotiations, despite the long list of prickly policy issues that Alexander and Murray will need to puzzle through.

60 Votes

If bipartisan talks falter, and there is a long list of reasons why they might, Alexander can still pursue his original strategy of persuading a small band of Democrats to allow his bill to move forward.

And since his philosophy in overhauling the law largely resides in giving states as much control over their K-12 system as possible, he'll probably be looking for Democrats who might be sympathetic to that notion, aka, Democrats who have also been governors.

Notably, Alexander is a leading member of a bipartisan group of governors-turned-senators that meet informally to discuss various legislation and policy issues that Congress is considering.

Here's an early list of which Democrats who were previously governors and/or who have been known to take a more moderate stance. Keep your eye on these folks as NCLB moves forward.

Previous Governors:

Tom Carper, D-Del.

Tim Kaine, D-Va.

Angus King, I-Maine

Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.

Mark Warner, D-Va.

Moderate Democrats:

Joe Donnelly, D-Ind.

Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.

Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

Jon Tester, D-Mon.

Did we miss anyone? Let us know!

Alyson Klein contributed to this story.

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