An Update From the Nation's Capital

ESEA Reauthorization


Public opinion polls indicate that elected officials in Washington, D.C., are not doing much of anything these days except to agreeing to disagree, and not coming to closure on most of the critical policy issues facing the nation. However, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions did agree in late October on legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (aka No Child Left Behind).


Many inside the Beltway believe this action was taken by the committee as a reaction to the state education waiver effort by the Obama Administration. Even though there is authority for the Secretary to issue waivers in the No Child Left Behind Act, many Republicans and even some Democrats are concerned that the waiver requirements is an agency legislating policy.


This was a result of hard work by both Democratic and Republican committee staff, and negotiations and compromise by the committee’s leadership, Senator Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Senator Michael Enzi (Wyo.) along with other committee members including Senators Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Al Franken (Minn.) and Jeff Bingaman (N.M.). There was a good deal of give and take to come up with a bill, but Senator Enzi is receiving heat from many of his Republican colleagues for this effort to come up with a bill.


In the end, the bipartisan bill was marked-up and voted out of committee on October 20, by a vote of 15-7, which included three Republicans voting with the Democrats. Not everyone is happy with the product. Many civil rights and education groups believe states and local districts were given too much flexibility in determining accountability, and any effort to improve, strengthen and encourage teacher evaluation was diluted. Others are quite pleased.


A few of the more significant amendments in the bill include:

  • Senator Alexander’s amendment to add a 7th school improvement strategy for Persistently Low Achieving Schools. This option would allow schools to choose a state-designated improvement model, which would have to be approved by the U.S. Secretary of Education.
  • Senator Franken’s amendment to allow computer-based adaptive testing in state accountability systems. Under NCLB, students could only be tested on grade-level material, so it was impossible to use state tests to know whether students were performing multiple grade levels ahead or behind of where they should be.
  • Senator Burr’s Title II funding equity amendment. Even though there was significant reluctance by Chair Harkin to get into a fight over funding formulas, which always pits Senators against one another and there are clear winners and losers, Senator Burr convinced the Committee to strip language guaranteeing states could get no less Title II formula funds than they did in 2001. Title II formula funding that has typically supported professional development and class size reduction, now will be mostly distributed based on the number of poor children in the state under the Senate bill’s language. It seems that small states will lose out here. Of course, Title II is not as large a pot of money as Title I, but the issue is worth following.
  • Multiple principal focused amendments. Senator Hagan’s amendment ensured new principals hired as part of any school improvement strategy have a record of improving student achievement or have participated in specialized training. Senator Franken added language for a competitive grant for principal training and development. And Senators Bennet and Alexander added additional language from the GREAT Act, creating Teacher and Principal Academies evaluated and funded based on graduates’ results in improving student performance.
  • Senator Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) amendment for highly qualified teachers in rural schools. This amendment allows rural schools to fulfill the highly qualified teacher requirements through distance learning and team teaching. Highly qualified teachers would work together with teachers who do not fulfill the requirement and could do so via the web.
  • Senator Bingaman’s amendment to restore the educational technology grant program. This reauthorizes an educational technology grant program, including language that ensures students have access to technology in schools, but are protected from any obscene content. It also makes it a competitive program if appropriations for the program fall short.


On November 8, the Committee held a two-hour hearing after the mark-up at the request of Senator Rand Paul (Ky.). Chairman Harkin agreed to the hearing. A variety of views were expressed about the bill from various sectors of the education community. Each of the witnesses had some recommendations to improve on the current bill (not the current law), and they varied from requirements of comparability to determining a highly qualified teacher; from the assessment of special education students to setting of targets and standards by states; and from weakening accountability requirements to too many requirements in turning around schools. Several suggestions made during the hearing are now under review by the committee and its staff, and possibly there will be some floor amendments when the bill goes to the Senate for a vote.


So what happens next or what can we expect?


The bill now goes to go to the Senate floor. Unfortunately, there are few if any openings on the Senate’s calendar during the current session to address the legislation nor is it likely that the Senate leadership will make an effort to find time. One can only hope the bill finds a way onto the calendar at the beginning of the second session of the 112th Congress, which begins in January 2012.


As for the House, negotiations continue between Democratic and Republican committee staff to try to work out a final bill, which will include everything not already addressed in bills already passed by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce chaired by John Kline (Minn.). Don’t expect too much but there may be a surprise at the beginning of 2012.


The big question is: Can both houses vote on legislation and have a conference on the two distinct bills prior to the 2012 presidential campaign going into full swing?


Deficit Reduction Effort

Members on both sides (Democrats and Republicans) of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (Super Committee) are deadlocked on entitlements and taxes. For many there is no excuse for failing to agree on any spending cuts whatsoever. If the super committee couldn’t find a way to “go big,” the very least it could do was “go small.” There are hundreds of billions in cuts that Democrats and Republicans could find without cutting entitlements or raising taxes. Failure to do so will make this one of the saddest displays of the unwillingness to compromise ever witnessed in Washington.


This is what has transpired in the past week that has put the Super Committee in this unenviable situation.


On Friday, November 18, Democrats rejected a last-ditch bid by Republicans to save the congressional super committee from failure, leaving the panel with no apparent path to compromise as the clock ticks toward a Thanksgiving deadline. Having concluded that an agreement looks increasingly unlikely on a far-reaching plan to raise taxes and restrain social spending, Republican members of the super committee worked with House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) to develop a smaller “Plan B” that would stop far short of the panel’s goal of $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade.


Instead, Republicans proposed to achieve $640 billion in savings primarily through cuts to domestic agency budgets, a pay freeze and bigger pension contributions for federal workers, cuts in farm subsidies and an array of other spending cuts and revenue raisers. The offer, delivered Thursday to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), included no cuts to the Pentagon other than attrition in the civilian workforce. It also included just one small tax increase, focused on owners of corporate jets, failing two key tests for Democratic negotiators. Republican leadership aides said Democrats immediately rejected it.


Democratic aides said the proposal would have reduced sharp cuts to defense that are scheduled to take effect in 2013, if the super committee fails and replaced them with cuts that would affect the middle class.


Earlier proposals exceeded the $1.2 trillion savings mandated in the sequestration legislation. Unfortunately, the Republicans rejected the Democrats proposal to reduce the deficit by about $3 trillion over the next 10 years, and the Democrats rejected the Republican proposal to reduce the deficit about $2.2 trillion. There was some hope when the Republicans on the Committee offered $300 billion in new revenues (taxes), and the Democrats offered real savings in health care entitlements.


On November 16th, in a rare bipartisan, bicameral showing, Republican and Democratic members of the House and Senate joined together to call for the Super Committee to think big on debt reduction. In recent weeks, 100 members of the House and 45 senators from both sides of the aisle have urged the Super Committee to propose at least $4 trillion in savings over ten years, well above the committee's $1.2 trillion mandate. The renewed support for a Go Big approach to debt reduction comes as the 12 members of the Super Committee enter the final days of negotiations. The committee had until November 23 to vote on a package of reforms and send it to the full Congress. 


President Obama has stated that the committee needed to slash the nation’s debt. If they don’t then the Congress will have to live with the consequences written into the August debt sequester legislation that extended the debt ceiling. The President has said he will not sign any measure to undo this legislation.


The official White House stance is that failure is not an option, but policy advisers privately are saying they are pessimistic that the 12-member Congressional panel will find a way to cut $1.2 trillion from the deficit as required. Perhaps mindful of the long odds of success, President Obama has largely left the negotiations alone, after issuing his blueprint in September for more than $3 trillion in savings.


If there is no proposal and legislation passed by Congress before the end of 2012, then sequestration would kick in January 2013. If one believes in miracles, then maybe something will happen to put a dent in the deficit. But, don’t bet your house (if you still own it) on a deal!!


[Ed. note: The Super Committee announced their failure to reach a deal on Monday, November 21st.]


A few appropriations bills have been passed for FY 2012. It is most likely that education will have another continuing resolution, which means level or reduced funding for most programs through September 30, 2012.


The saga really of not accomplishing very much never seems to end with the 112th Congress. A weekend government shutdown that neither party wanted was averted under a compromise, wide-ranging spending bill that the House and Senate approved on Thursday, November 17. The legislation also funded the following federal agencies for the current fiscal year (FY 2012) -- Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Justice and Transportation as well as science agencies including NASA.


House approval came despite misgivings by lawmakers from the left and the right. Liberals were unhappy with a provision blocking Obama administration efforts to knock pizza off school lunch menus. Conservatives complained that the legislation left taxpayers on the hook by expanding the size of some federally backed mortgages.

With Congress eager to avoid further tarnishing its atrocious public image by shutting down the government, the House approved a compromise, wide-ranging spending bill by a vote of 298-121 and the Senate voted in favor of the bill 70-30. The legislation will keep the government's doors open through December 16, giving lawmakers more time to catch up on their tardy budget work.


Jobs and Infrastructure Legislation


The prognosis for President Obama to get Congress to pass most of his jobs bill is slim to none. The Senate on November 10 did pass with a vote of 95-0, one part of the bill, which supports a jobs program for returning veterans through tax credits to business who hire veterans. The House passed the same bill unanimously on November 16. The President will sign this legislation.


The infrastructure component of the original jobs bill is not moving at all, including the school construction piece. Also, similar school construction bills introduced by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (Conn.) and Senator Sherrod Brown (Ohio) [H.B 248 and S 1597 respectively] have not gained any significant interest to have a committee or floor vote.

Frederick (Fritz) S. Edelstein, Ph.D. is a principal in Public Private Action, LLC. Fritz works with clients on strategic government and constituent relations, advocacy research and policy analysis, strategic planning and resource development, and advocacy, outreach and public engagement. He writes and disseminates “Fritzwire,” the nation’s leading Internet newsletter on education that provides timely education and related information, five days a week. His career includes time working at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, U.S. Department of Education and the National Alliance of Business. Fritz earned is B.A. from Washington University and a M.Ed. and Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

About the Author

Fritz Edelstein is a principal in Public Private Action. His work focuses on strategic government and constituent relations, business development strategy, advocacy research and policy analysis, strategic planning and resource development, and advocacy, outreach and public engagement. This work includes producing Fritzwire, the education Internet newsletter providing timely information on education and related issues. To subscribe, write [email protected]