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Reports of ESEA Reauthorization Death May Be Slightly Exaggerated

By Charles Barone, DFER Policy Director

Part 1 of 4

After the first failed attempt by Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2007-08, I wrote that Congressional reauthorization of ESEA might be on its way to irrelevancy. Congress seemed hopelessly deadlocked. And there were several ESEA issues that could have been addressed through regulation or separate, targeted provisions in must-pass appropriations bills.

Five years later, Congress still seems hopelessly deadlocked. And that's putting it nicely. In the past five years, however - through permutations of various federal, state, local, and non-governmental initiatives - there has been more progress on key ESEA-related issues than most people, including me, thought was possible, e.g.,:

  • Raising academic standards;
  • Overhauling student assessments;
  • Formalizing a common, 50-state measure of high school graduation; and,
  • Building comprehensive state and local education data systems.

Efforts on all of these issues - and others such as teacher evaluation, which is light years ahead of where it was in 2008 - are all more or less still works-in-progress. They need time to develop before their efficacy can be determined, at least in the vast majority of states that are doing something. So, arguably, the reauthorization of ESEA is more irrelevant than ever. And a lot more tricky.

This doesn't mean that some key issues (e.g., stubborn disparities in the distribution of effective teachers) don't beg for action, nor does it mean nothing should be done to catalyze change on the above issues in laggard states. More on that at a later date.

First, though, Congress and the Administration are going to have to face up to some political realities. Eleven years is the longest it's ever taken to reauthorize ESEA by a margin of about four years, and there are few signs of reauthorization life anywhere inside the beltway. Only 37% of education insiders surveyed recently by Whiteboard Advisors thinks the law will be reauthorized by the end of 2014.

I'm not quite so pessimistic. The failure to reauthorize the law when it expired five years ago, and the fact that so many are skeptical now about it getting done in the next two, has less to do with policy than it does politics.

Untethered from political pressures, especially but not only from teachers unions, Democrats could move forward to enact reforms on which there is consensus among rank and file teachers, parents, and objective analysts. Untethered from political pressures, especially the fear of being tea-partied, a majority of Republicans could do the same.

In the past two months, there have been signs, on issues other than education, that both parties may be willing to stand up to special interest groups in the name of getting something done. Speaker Boehner, with support from other House Republican leaders, allowed the fiscal cliff deal to be brought to the floor even though only 85 out of 236 Republicans joined Democrats to support it. Something similar happened on the Hurricane Sandy emergency relief bill, where even fewer Republicans (49) joined Democrats voting in favor.

In the Senate, a bipartisan effort on immigration reform emerged in which members of both parties made compromises - followed by strong and predictable blowback from both ends of the political spectrum - in an effort to find common ground and advance a bill that has a chance of passage. Obviously, education doesn’t have the same political urgency as the fiscal cliff, hurricane relief, or immigration. But if it’s important at all to politicians, perhaps the same spirit and political pragmatism that is helping solve these issues could work in education as well.

Tomorrow: What Republicans Have to Do for ESEA Reauthorization Passage

Charles Barone has more than 25 years of experience in education service, research, policy, and advocacy. Prior to joining Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) full-time in January of 2009, Barone worked for five years as an independent consultant on education policy and advocacy. His clients, in addition to DFER, included the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, the Education Trust, The Education Sector, and the National Academy of Sciences. Read more here.