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Making Sense of the Midterms: An NCLB Patch?

We hosted a pretty boisterous "making sense of the midterms" session yesterday at AEI, featuring former NEA policy chief Joel Packer, Senate uber-staffers Lindsay Hunsicker and Bethany Little, key Rep. Kline staffer Amy Jones, AEI edu-politics guru (and RHSU guest blogger) Andrew Kelly, and yours truly. The affair was chaired by my AEI colleague, and former NCES Commissioner, Mark Schneider. You can watch the whole thing or find a summary here. You can also check out Alyson Klein's usual impeccable coverage here at Ed Week's "Politics K-12" blog.

Two thoughts I'll share here. First, I'm betting that there won't be an ESEA/NCLB reauthorization in the next two years. There, I'm in good company. Whiteboard Advisors monthly survey of "edu-insiders" is out today. It reports that 25% think it likely that there'll be bipartisan cooperation on ESEA/NCLB reauthorization in the new Congress, but 54% think that unlikely and expect reauthorization to take place after 2012.

I do expect, though, that before the 2012 elections the new Congress will pass some kind of "NCLB patch," which suspends the ludicrous consequences of a law that will soon label most of the nation's schools as failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). No need to rehash here the self-defeating problems with this well-intentioned effort to legislate aspirations (for more on that, check out the Education Next article "Crash Course" which I penned with Checker Finn a few years back).

I'm not expecting a "stripped-down" bill but something like the annual "doc fix" we see Congress pass to halt mandated cuts in Medicare payment rates to doctors. Congress is bad at addressing big problems through complex legislation, but it excels at stopgaps that ease the pain. Take the annual "Alternative Minimum Tax patch," which spares millions of taxpayers from getting caught up in the AMT without actually resolving the concerns with this 41-year-old statute. Just this past week, we've seen bipartisan support to push the patch through the lame duck session. Like the "doc fix," the AMT patch is never offset and will result in tens of billions in additional federal borrowing this year. Congress hardly blinks an eye at these costly patches, as it routinely passes them; pushing through a cost-free bill that halts the clumsy labeling of a reviled NCLB should be easy pickings by comparison. I'm betting that a bipartisan measure which renders NCLB toothless--either by making its remedy provisions voluntary or otherwise declawing AYP--will pass sometime in 2012.

Yesterday, my good friends on the Hill thought otherwise. Lindsay Hunsicker, Senator Mike Enzi's education expert, said Senator Enzi strongly opposes anything short of a full-fledged reauthorization. And Bethany Little, Senator Tom Harkin's wickedly sharp edu-honcho, expressed pretty much the same take. Now, I put immense stock in the judgment of these two. But both also have a rooting interest to get an ESEA/NCLB reauthorization done, and to quell talk of "patches" which might make that job harder. So, I'll stand on my prediction and we'll see what happens.

Second, for all the attention paid to the giant GOP gains in the U.S. House and governors mansions, the most noteworthy Republican gains were the prodigious pick-ups in state legislatures. In the legislatures, Republicans gained more than 675 seats--a figure that blew past what either party won in 1974 or 1994. The GOP claimed control of 19 legislative chambers. Republicans won control of the North Carolina legislature for the first time since 1870 (yep, 140 years) and of Alabama's for the first time since 1876. The Wisconsin and New Hampshire legislatures flipped to the GOP, as did the state houses in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, Montana, and Colorado.

For schooling, the import of these shifts is huge--especially when one considers how many new legislators, Tea Partiers or no, ran on a message of cutting spending and holding the line on taxes. Educators who may have been hoping that D.C. or state legislatures would step up with new funds are likely to be disappointed. With stimulus dollars starting to run dry and many states having asterisked in hoped-for federal dollars when crafting their FY2011 budgets, it's going to be a bumpy ride. These state-level shifts--especially in key states like Florida, Ohio, and Tennessee--also present potential headaches for the Obama Administration when it comes to Race to the Top and the Common Core.

In many states, the full educational impact of last Tuesday won't be clear for a couple years, until the new governors have named a majority of appointees to the boards of education. This may make Tuesday's results something of a time bomb for the Common Core in some states, with a delayed fuse that won't ignite until 2013 or so. At that point, if a few states start to reverse course, we'll see whether the Common Core effort has got enough momentum to roll on or whether other frogs start jumping out of the wheelbarrow.

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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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