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Grim Tea Leaves for the Vaunted Tradition of Edu-Bipartisanship

While waiting to go on the Diane Rehm radio show yesterday (with my friend Cindy Brown of CAP and Ed Week's own journo ace Alyson Klein), we listened to our earnest Secretary of Education predicting that education's vaunted legacy of bipartisanship means grand things for NCLB (nee ESEA) reauthorization, Race to the Top implementation, and federal education policy. I'm skeptical whether that tradition will offer the sustenance that Duncan is counting on.

First, there is a strong tradition of bipartisanship in education, and splits (like on NCLB accountability) rarely track party lines. Moreover, Obama and Duncan have talked more explicitly and forcefully about charter schooling, merit pay, and teacher effectiveness than any previous president or SecEd. This has won them much goodwill with conservatives. That said, this tradition of bipartisanship played out against a landscape where every reform came with new dollars attached. And, as bipartisan as the vote was on NCLB back in 2001, by 2004, Republicans on Capitol Hill were feeling they'd been misled by the Bush administration into a wrong-footed expansion of the federal role in schooling. Today, more than a few Republicans on Capitol Hill have grumbled that they think Duncan's department has done little in the way of building relationships across party lines, soliciting ideas, or addressing concerns.

Second, many conservatives--on the Hill and elsewhere--see the nationalization of student lending in the health care bill, the exclusion of for-profit ventures from i3, Harkin's hostile hearings on for-profit higher education, and new Department proposals to regulate for-profit higher education as a concerted assault on the role of for-profits in education. Meanwhile, the administration's willingness to helicopter cash into school districts and public institutions of higher education via the stimulus and Edujobs, along with Duncan's steadfast failure to address educational productivity or to demand heightened cost-effectiveness from schools or colleges, mean that, for all the good feelings over charter schooling or the Common Core, the edu-debate is increasingly overlaid on heated arguments regarding the federal role, public spending, and the place of free enterprise.

Third, conventional wisdom is now that the GOP will pick up a bunch of seats in the House and several in the Senate this year. Especially in the House, the 2010 vintage Republicans (Tea Partiers or no) are going to Washington pledging to cut spending and government. They are unlikely to back new federal outlays, big domestic programs, or federal efforts to identify and specify interventions for low-performing schools. While Duncan can explain that the ESEA blueprint represents an effort to dial back NCLB's excessive ambitions in favor of more targeted measures, the new members (and conservatives reading the tea leaves) are likely to support the dialing back and the gutting of AYP, but not the administration's new proposals.

Meanwhile, the Dems most likely to lose are purple district Dems standing smack in the path of an approaching Republican tide; in other words, the Dems most likely to support the administration's education agenda. So, whether House Republicans pick up 25 seats or 55, the next Congress will have more Republicans dead-set on shrinking the federal government and a Democratic caucus more heavily populated by NEA allies.

So whether or not Nancy Pelosi is still Speaker come January, the administration is likely to have a tougher row to hoe on education. And some of the most visible bipartisanship may be complementary efforts by Tea Party conservatives and NEA liberals to declaw the AYP provisions of NCLB and dial back the federal footprint when it comes to school reform.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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