Washington Watch

The Classroom Teacher, spring 2015

The 114th Congress began in January with the largest Republican majority since 1929 with Republicans picking up nine additional seats and control in the Senate and 13 additional seats in the House. Republicans were ideally poised to pass legislation and lead Congress, significant enough in number to make demands without the desire to negotiate, as was displayed in the recent effort to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

Rep. John Kline, chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, reintroduced his Republican bill from last Congress but Democrats wanted a new bipartisan bill and some debate time. Kline may have been buoyed by having a Republican majority to support his bill on the House floor, but the effort nearly sank when the far-right faction pulled its support as questions emerged about the content of the provisions.

Provisions of ESEA

The House reauthorization bill tilts conservative on many provisions. It allows states to set their own goals, and design their own accountability systems and interventions for improving performance when the goals are not met. Teacher evaluation systems would be optional, but if under design in the states, they could contain multiple measures. The federal government would have no ability to intervene or use conditional waivers to suit federal policy. The legislation is structured to give states back the control of their educational systems. President Obama said the bill would be dead on arrival if it survived the Senate. In March, Kline was working with the House leadership to secure votes and bring the bill back to the floor.

In the Senate, after a false start, the education committee regrouped to draft a reauthorization bill with Democrats engaged and negotiating with their Republican counterparts. Members planned to consider amendments in mid-April, with possible floor consideration in late April or early May. The new compromise is referred to as the Every Child Achieves Act and is intended to provide relief from the harmful results of earlier legislation while maintaining provisions that have been successful. 

Democrats are quick to point to research on the positive effects of accountability measures under No Child Left Behind (the most recent version of ESEA) that have shown an increase in performance among all students, with major progress being made toward closing persistent equity gaps and positive steps forward for students with disabilities. Without federal oversight of the billions in education funding provided to states, Democrats are concerned states will opt to lower their standards, obscure meaningful data, and undercut the needs of the most vulnerable students. Trusting states to establish and maintain high standards is an issue of concern.

Reauthorization may be halted until after elections

The Senate bill may represent the best chance of an ESEA reauthorization crossing the finish line this year. If not, reauthorization will not come up again until after the 2016 presidential election. Sen. Lamar Alexander, chair of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, plans to hold a markup of the Senate bill in mid-April. 

There is no doubt that NCLB is not perfect, and members of Congress and their constituents will need to decide if any new legislation is better than the current federal waiver-with-strings environment. It remains to be seen if Republican leaders can forge a compromise bill acceptable within their own party, along with some congressional Democrats, that the White House will sign into law.

 

Washington Watch is provided by TCTA’s Washington, D.C. lobby firm, Van Scoyoc Associates, Inc., a full-service federal government affairs firm and the foremost independent lobbying company in the nation’s capital.