America’s economic situation is in the forefront of the minds of Americans, and Congress and the administration are looking for ways to address our country’s situation through deficit reduction and job creation. One specific area that many believe is critical to addressing both of these issues is education. 

Educators, parents and other education stakeholders have been calling on Washington to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – also known as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act – for several years, stressing the importance of rewriting portions of the law to work better for students and educators. Although it is unlikely a full reauthorization of the law will be completed prior to the 2012 election, recent actions have been taken by the administration and Congress to begin addressing some concerns with current law and advance an updated ESEA proposal.

The administration is also pushing for the passage of provisions within the American Jobs Act to enable state and local governments to hire and retain teachers.

NCLB waivers/ESEA reauthorization

In late September, President Barack Obama announced that states could apply for exemptions from basic elements of the NCLB Act if they meet certain conditions. The president took action because Congress’ efforts to reauthorize the ESEA failed, and “Our kids only get one shot at a decent education.”

To get NCLB waivers, states are required to adopt college- and career-ready standards and tie state tests to those standards, adopt an accountability system that focuses on 15 percent of the most troubled schools, and create guidelines for teacher and principal evaluation systems based, in part, on student achievement, and used for personnel decisions.

Currently, 41 states have submitted their intent to request ESEA flexibility, with 11 states applying for the first round of waivers, including Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.

After months of dragging its feet, Congress finally took action on Oct. 20, 2011, when an ESEA reauthorization bill was passed out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. The HELP Committee held a follow-up hearing on the bill in November, although the bill is not expected to reach the Senate floor until next year. The House has yet to act on any  ESEA proposals. Additional information on NCLB waivers and ESEA reauthorization is included here.  

American Jobs Act

In early October, President Obama’s $477-billion comprehensive jobs bill was defeated in the Senate, 50-49 (60 votes were needed for passage).

Many Democrats favored the bill’s $175 billion in new spending, which included an extension of unemployment insurance and support for schools and public works. Republicans supported some of the tax breaks included in the president’s plan, but were strongly opposed to the proposed 5.6 percent tax on millionaires.  

After failing to pass the Senate, the president revised his plan and has started pressing Congress to pass pieces of the measure. In mid-October, the Senate considered a bill aimed at saving teachers’ jobs. The legislation provided $30 billion for state and local governments to hire teachers and other workers, and would be paid for with $30 billion in cuts from domestic agency spending. On Oct. 20, 2011, the Senate failed to reach the required votes necessary to move this legislation forward - the 50-50 vote fell short of the 60 votes needed. 

U.S. Department of Education funding 

Trying to retain some control over the regular appropriations process, Senate appropriators would like to pass some version of regular appropriations bills so they can affect spending at the program level. They do not want to be pushed into enacting a Continuing Resolution that would set overall spending limits or a giant “omnibus” bill that funds the entire government.  

The Democrat-controlled Senate would instead like to pass “minibus” bills that would combine only a few appropriations bills at a time for consideration. The House and Senate have reached an agreement on the first minibus package which is expected to pass.  It provides funding for Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science, and Transportation-Housing and Urban Development. The bill also includes a new Continuing Resolution that runs through December 16.

The timing of further action on the Labor-Health and Human Services-Education Appropriations bill, which funds all federal education programs, remains unclear. The House of Representatives released its draft Labor-Health and Human Services-Education Appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2012, although there is no subcommittee or full committee markup scheduled to take place. In September, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed its bill, which contains funds for the administration’s priority programs including $698.6 million for Race to the Top, $500 million for the early childhood challenge fund, and $149.7 million for the Investing in Innovation (i3) fund. The bill also includes $14.5 billion for Title I, the same as the fiscal year 2011 level.

Social Security Offsets

The Social Security Fairness Act was introduced by California Republican Rep. Howard McKeon in the House of Representatives in April 2011. The bill seeks to eliminate both the Government Pension Offset (GPO) and Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) programs, which together reduce Social Security benefits and spousal benefits for former government employees who receive government pensions. The bill still has yet to see any legislative activity in Congress, although 121 members are currently cosponsors of and support the bill.

This article was prepared by Van Scoyoc Associates, TCTA’s lobby team in Washington, D.C., with extensive experience with education-related committees at the Capitol and in executive branch agencies.