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Reports of ESEA Reauthorization Death May Be Slightly Exaggerated - Part 2 - Republicans

By Charles Barone, DFER Policy Director

Part 2 of 4

Yesterday's post posited that recent bipartisan cooperation around other issues may augur more Congressional willingness to reach middle ground on ESEA reauthorization. One does not necessarily follow the other. But if the shift from polarization to pragmatism holds and extends to education, ESEA reauthorization goes from virtually impossible to politically plausible.

What would that look like politically for Congressional Republicans? First, they would have to figure out how far they can go on the federal role in education. State and local control of education policy plays well with the party base. But moderates and independents are less concerned about who-does-what than they are about what-gets-done. The problem for those Republicans, without whom ESEA reauthorization is impossible, is that they have already seen primary challenges from the party's right wing take out their moderate colleagues.

Senate Republicans. Any Senate ESEA reauthorization has to be bipartisan and Senator Lamar Alexander, the new ranking member of the Senate Education Committee, is pivotal to that outcome. Right now, Alexander is much more to the right on education than toward the middle. Last month, Alexander reiterated an education proposal he offered to President Reagan in the 1980's: “You, Mr. President, take all of Medicaid, 100 percent of it, and we in the states will take all of K-12 education." That of course didn't happen. But Alexander said he plans to introduce legislation to do just that later this year.

Let's set aside for a moment the fact that states are about as uneven in ensuring equal educational opportunities for low-income students (the primary purpose of ESEA) as they are in providing health care to low-income families, the elderly, and people with disabilities (the primary purposes of Medicaid). Alexander is up for reelection in 2014. Because his track record of bipartisanship may make him vulnerable to a tea party primary challenge, he’s been shoring up endorsements and amassing a campaign war chest to scare off any such attempt before it can even get started. So more bipartisanship, on education or other issues, may not be on his agenda.

But because Alexander staked out his position on the federal role in education three decades ago, you can't attribute his current stance solely to holding off a 2014 tea-party challenge. Based both on politics and ideology, it's anybody's guess how far he can go with the federal role and, in turn, bipartisanship. And he's almost definitely going to have to go a bit farther than the Senate Committee bill did in 2011 because, as will be discussed in tomorrow's post, so likely will Democrats.

Help On The Way? Help against a tea-party challenge may be out there for Alexander, if he wants it, and other moderate Republicans. Republican-leaning groups like the Business Coalition for Student Achievement and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposed the Senate HELP Committee's 2011 reauthorization bill because it had too weak of a federal role on accountability, an area Republicans used to own. That in and of itself won't be enough. But if education is as high a priority as business leaders say it is, you would think stronger support from them for Republicans who support their education policies would be seriously considered.

It also was revealed just yesterday that Karl Rove, who figured out the appeal of education reform to suburban swing voters more than a decade ago, will be directing his PAC efforts to holding off tea-party challenges to mainstream Republicans in coming election cycles. This is a 180 degree turn that, in case you've been living under a rock, seems based in part on the fact that the tea-partiers Rove helped elect in the past four years didn't work out too well for Republicans in general elections. Again, I'm not saying it's necessarily enough. But it and other such efforts may give moderate Republicans a larger comfort zone in which to maneuver.

House Republicans. House Republicans face a similar political context, with a few twists. One difference: House Education Committee Chairman John Kline and Ranking Member George Miller actually took an education bill to the floor in the 112th Congress that passed with broad bipartisan support. The bill, which reauthorized the federal Charter School Program, passed by a vote of 365 to 54. Thirteen Republicans, however, voted no. Even though it seems like a small number, that's likely the absolute low point for Republican "no" votes on an education bill given that charters are more popular with Republicans than are most policies in ESEA.

Kline did pass other, broader ESEA reauthorization legislation - The Student Success Act - out of his Committee on a strict party line vote. But my guess is that to do a complete reauthorization that covers all ESEA policies, he would lose - give or take - 40 of the farthest-right Republicans, which would make at least some bipartisanship absolutely necessary.

The same Republican groups mentioned above could provide cover for House Republican moderates who want to get something done on ESEA. Furthermore, Kline, Miller, and Speaker Boehner have a history of working together to navigate those kinds of Class IV and V political rapids toward the end-goal of passing reform-oriented education legislation. Remarks made today by House Majority Leader (and future Speaker candidate) Eric Cantor, that emphasized private school vouchers, show that reaching common ESEA ground won't be easy for anybody, particularly Boehner. But if Cantor and others give moderates a pass on education, as they did on the fiscal-cliff tax increase, ESEA reauthorization could move forward.

Hey, I never said it would be easy. But stranger things have happened.

Tomorrow: Politics, Democrats, and ESEA Reauthorization.

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.