With the House about to move on the Student Success Act (SSA), the NCLB/ESEA reauthorization dance is back in full swing. Reporters are calling, heated e-mails are flying around the Beltway, and policy types are making heated declarations. For what it's worth, here's what's on my mind:
1] The most interesting development in the House is going to be how much grief Chairman Kline and K-12 Subcommittee Chair Rokita get from their right. This is another case of the fascinating politics in the House, where diehard conservatives like Kline and Rokita are going to get knocked around by Tea Party members and hard-right advocacy groups who think even their bill involves far too much of a federal role. Given that the SSA isn't likely to get many Democratic votes, Kline and Rokita probably need to carry at least 80% of House Republicans. In light of recent events, I'm dubious they can get there.
2] Those R's who want the feds "out" of K-12 schooling really need to be consistent and call for zeroing out IDEA, Title I, and the rest. Since they have no intention of doing that, they need to recognize that responsible federal lawmakers absolutely ought to insist on some transparency about academic outcomes and how the federal money is spent. And, like it or not, some federal language governing use of funds is going to be inevitable.
3] SSA's particular appeal to Republicans is the opportunity to rein in Sec. Duncan's expansive and creative use of waivers. The problem for Kline and Rokita is that governors, state chiefs, and superintendents who've been given waivers feel little sense of urgency to change things and are reasonably comfortable with what they've now got. Those messages are being conveyed to House members, who may not be inclined to pick a fight with state and local officials.
4] This is all mostly kabuki theater. It's possible that a bill will pass the House. But does anyone really think it's likely that the Senate is going to pass a bill? And, should that unlikely event come to pass, is there anyone out there who thinks that a conference committee could craft a bill that would pass muster with House Republicans and Senate Democrats? I still put the odds of reauthorization before 2015 at roughly, oh, two or three percent.
5] That said, these efforts are not meaningless. As I noted a few weeks ago, the bills that R's and D's pass this year will become the basis for the actual legislation that will eventually emerge (in 2015 or, much more likely, in 2017).
6] In playing to their base, the House Republicans are discussing reauthorization in a way that almost assures they will fail to persuade moderates or even the center-right. The call to simply "get Washington out of schools" is weak sauce next to Democratic arguments that the feds ought to ensure that federal funds are spent properly and that states are working to close achievement gaps, and that "local control" just means a return to the old status quo. The thing is, I think the Republicans really do have a compelling response. Problem is, they can't say it without infuriating their base. What Kline and Rokita are proposing is really NOT to "get the feds out of K-12" but a much more limited, modest federal role. They would still call for NCLB-style transparency, smart rules guiding the use of federal funds, education research, and efforts to unwind intrusive federal regulations. This is a vision that focuses on what Uncle Sam can actually do well. The thing is, it's unlikely any Republican is going to describe SSA this way.
7] House Republicans have the ability to do Sec. Duncan an unexpected favor when it comes to the Common Core. By splitting hairs when it came to the difference between "standards" and "curricula" in order to push the Common Core, Duncan helped stir conservative concerns about federal overreach and slippery slopes. Those will not go away until the door to federal involvement is firmly closed. And Duncan has made clear, as in his recent speech to the nation's newspaper editors, that he has no intention to change course. But, by drawing a bright line when it comes to federal meddling with standards (in addition to the existing prohibitions on the Department of Education when it comes to curricula), the SSA could lance that boil and allow the Common Core discussion to shift from its focus on what the feds did or didn't do to the Core's merits and the practical challenges.