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ESEA Rewrite: What to Expect From House-Senate Conference

Education leaders from both chambers of Congress begin brokering an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this week after recent passage of starkly differing House and Senate bills, in hopes of delivering something to the president's desk this fall.

And the clock is ticking: Congress convenes Monday for one of its last working weeks before members scatter for the summer break July 30 until September.

Last week, the U.S. Senate passed its version of a federal K-12 reauthorization for the first time in more than 14 years. The bill, known as the Every Child Achieves Act, is carefully crafted piece of bipartisan legislation from co-authors Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash. The two were able to hold their caucuses together to pass the bill with overwhelming support from both sides of the aisle, 81-17.

But that's not exactly how it played out in the U.S. House of Representatives, where Republican leadership yanked its version of an ESEA rewrite off the floor mid-debate in February amid waning support from their own caucus.

After months of whipping and educating members about how the bill differs from current law, leadership rescheduled it for floor debate earlier this month, where it narrowly passed in by 218-213, with 27 Republicans joining the entire Democratic caucus in opposing it.

Now the representatives from both parties and both chambers will attempt to find common ground between their dueling reauthorization bills, which contain some big policy differences.

Chief among those differences is how to beef up accountability in a way that appeases the concerns of Democrats and the civil rights communities that the end result must include stronger federal guardrails for the most disadvantaged students, while at the same time ensuring the small federal footprint that Republicans are adamant about.

In an interview after the final passaged of the bill, Alexander acknowledged that discrepancies over accountability exist but reiterated his commitment to getting a bill to the president's desk "that he's comfortable signing."

"I'll need to be convinced," he said when asked about the prospects of increasing safeguards during the conference process. "My goal and the goal of the bill is to keep the important measures of accountability—keep the report cards, keep the tests—so we'll know how the children are doing, but turn over what to do about the tests and the accountability for getting a result to the states and local school boards."

"I think that's real accountability," he continued. "The president would like to have more federal involvement in that accountability process. I understand that. We'll just have to discuss that."

The Senate rejected an amendment from Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., that would have would have required states to establish measurable state-designed goals for all students and separately for each of the categories of subgroups of students, and to intervene when they don't meet those goals. It also would have required states to intervene in their lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and those that graduate less than 67 percent of their students.

Democrats threw their weight behind the amendment, garnering support from 42 of their members, enough bodies to show that, along with the dozen or so Republicans they anticipate voting against the bill no matter what, they would be able to block final passage of a conferenced bill should it not include stronger accountability language.

Whatever compromise they may make on accountability, however, will have to pass muster in the House, where a solid block of Republicans and Democrats would need to support the bill for it to pass. And House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has had a difficult time as of late rallying his troops.

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

Murray sought to head off those provisions, speaking on the chamber floor after the Senate passed its reauthorization.

"House Republicans chose a partisan approach to reauthorize this bill," she said. "Their bill doesn't represent one end and ours represents another, where we have to meet in the middle. Their bill really represents an unacceptable partisan approach and path, and ours represents a carefully negotiated compromise with just a few important steps to go."

You can read about the accountability and choice issues here.

No matter the result, one thing is for sure: The forthcoming conference process, which is set to begin as soon as possible and likely last several weeks, represents the most serious reauthorization attempt since Congress last overhauled the law in 2001.

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