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NCLB Reauthorization: Here We Go Again

Word has it that the Democrats on the Senate HELP Committee will be bringing forth their proposal for NCLB/ESEA reauthorization this week. Thus we'll return to a favorite Beltway edu-pastime: discussing whether reauthorization will pass, whether there will be a bipartisan bill, and what might change.

The bottom line: There will be no reauthorization in 2013 or 2014. There will be no bipartisan Senate bill. Expect the majority Democratic bill to look a lot like the 2011 Harkin-Enzi bill that made it out of committee, and Republicans to sketch a far more modest federal role.

The longer version: There are four key things to keep in mind as the reauthorization discussion plays out. First, the context has been reset by the ESEA waivers that the Department of Education has issued. That provides the new status quo, and it's a stable one for now. Sec. Duncan and the President have no incentive to do anything that's less palatable to them, and most states have addressed their most pressing concerns. Absent actual demand for change, assembling a coalition to get a bill done becomes really tough.

Second, there's no money. You can't adjust formulas or meaningfully alter funding streams in the U.S. Senate unless you can hold states harmless (i.e. make sure they get as much money as they would've under the old rules), and you can't do that without new money. Simple calculus: no money, no change.

Third, writing a partisan bill makes it easier for the majority Dems to hold all of their committee members. And given the fascinating lineup of Dems on HELP--from former superintendent Michael Bennet to newbie firebrands Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin and socialist Bernie Sanders--that'll be no small challenge. Whether they stick together matters, though, because the D's have the thinnest of margins on HELP, and will need all their votes to move a partisan bill out of committee. Meanwhile, the really interesting thing is that the R's theoretically have a better chance of picking off a Baldwin than a Bennet--because it's the union-friendly progressives who are now closer to the GOP call for less federal intervention. Conversely, it will be interesting to see how Sen. Alexander manages the tensions on the GOP side--with tea partiers Rand Paul and Tim Scott ready to see ED close up shop but about half the R's on HELP more supportive of a federal role. Given the climate and symbolic nature of the coming debate, I don't see much chance of the D's poaching a Murkowski or a Kirk, but it'll be interesting to see them try.

Fourth, no bill is going to make it to the President's desk. Even if the full Senate passed a bill this fall (not too likely) and the House passed all its requisite pieces (not too likely), can you imagine the House-Senate conference on NCLB? Can't see a bill emerging. Despite all these hurdles, what happens this year will still matter a lot, because the competing proposals are likely to be the baseline from which the winning Presidential candidate will start in 2017 (when reauth will have a real chance to get done).

In response to the what Democrats are going to propose, expect the Senate Republicans to craft a hard-hitting bill, producing a debate that will help clarify where the two sides agree -- and disagree. Most importantly, there's a fundamental difference of opinion on whether the federal role should consist primarily of an insistence on reporting and transparency (because that's what the feds can do well and are uniquely positioned to do) or whether the federal role ought to also include, as under NCLB, an effort to compel states to do something about persistently "failing" schools (because otherwise too many states won't act). Today, in the U.S. Senate, Republicans favor the first approach, Democrats the second.

That honest difference of opinion will be at the heart of the debate. However, because most education "reformers" tend to side with the Dems on this -- and because the Obama administration and folks at ED obviously prefer a more activist stance -- we can expect that a more modest federal role will be characterized as a "retreat". I find this peculiar, given that some of the same people lamenting a "retreat" have noted real flaws in NCLB. But they chalk these problems up to this or that "implementation" problem, rather than to the feds trying to do too much, too crudely.

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

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