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Conference Process to Rewrite ESEA Gets Underway

The conference process for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act began in earnest Thursday morning, as a bipartisan "Gang of Four" met to lay out the groundwork for brokering a proposal that can pass both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.

All the expected characters were at the table: Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairman and ranking member of the Senate education committee who co-authored the bipartisan bill that passed the Senate with overwhelming support, and Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., and Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chairman and the ranking member of the House education committee.

The four released a statement after their meeting, which didn't contain too many specifics, though that didn't stop us from reading between the lines.

"There is a lot of work to do in the coming months, and I am confident we will be able to craft a bicameral education bill that reduces the federal role, restores local control, and empowers parents and education leaders," said Kline. "Those are the kind of education reforms the American people expect and we must deliver."

Alexander went a step further, throwing down the gauntlet with a fall deadline.

"Fifty million children and 3.5 million teachers deserve to get a result, and we should be able to achieve that this fall," he said. "While there are important differences, the consensus supporting the framework for the House and Senate bills is the same: Continue the law's important measurements of academic progress of students but restore to states, school districts, classroom teachers and parents the responsibility for deciding what to do about improving student achievement."

Murray, meanwhile, hinted at the difficult task they have in brokering a deal to beef up accountability in the bill.

"I am hopeful that we can build on this bipartisan foundation to take the final steps to get this bill to the President's desk," she said. "As we head toward conference, I look forward to continuing to improve the final bill to make sure all students have access to a good education, regardless of where they live, how they learn, or how much money their parents make."

Scott, who has previously been shut out of ESEA rewrite conversations in the House, now finds himself at the center of the debate. And he made it clear (if it wasn't clear already) that he'll be carrying the water for the civil rights community, which is demanding strong federal safeguards for disadvantaged students.

"The right to educational opportunity knows no state boundaries, and federal law must protect this right for all students regardless of race, income, disability, or language status," he said. "I am confident that working together, we will produce a comprehensive reauthorization that fulfills the ESEA's original civil rights legacy. I stand committed to producing a bipartisan bill that eliminates resource inequities and effectively addresses achievement gaps."

As we've reported previously, conferees will have to overcome some serious policy differences.

Chief among those disparities is how to beef up accountability in a way that appeases the concerns of Democrats and the civil rights community, while at the same time ensuring the small federal footprint that Republicans are adamant about.

The conference appointees will also debate whether to maintain two provisions in the House bill that are not in the Senate bill: One that would allow Title I dollars for low-income children to follow them to the school of their choice, and another that would eliminate language in the current law that allows the federal government to punish schools and states where lots of students are opting out of tests.

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