Reports of ESEA Reauthorization Death May Be Slightly Exaggerated - Part 3 - Congressional Democrats


By Charles Barone, DFER Policy Director

Part 3 of 4

On Monday, I made a case that ESEA reauthorization may be, if not likely, more possible than people assume. Recent instances when Republicans and Democrats worked to find common ground on other issues could augur well for education. Those broader trends provide the necessary context. But they're not sufficient. Yesterday we went into more detail to describe what political realism and pragmatism on ESEA might look like for Congressional Republicans. Today we turn to Congressional Democrats.

Senate Democrats - In the Fall of 2011, Senators Tom Harkin and Mike Enzi (Chair and Ranking Member, respectively, of the Senate Committee on Education, Health, Labor and Pensions i.e., HELP) worked together on an ESEA reauthorization bill that was passed out of the Committee in October of 2011. The vote was 15 (all 12 Democrats and 3 of the Committee’s Republicans) to 7. On the surface, that would seem to bode well for a final Senate vote in favor of the bill. (OK. It's the Senate. So not necessarily). But the Committee mark-up brought to the forefront latent political dynamics on ESEA wherein teachers unions, administrators, and school board members found themselves at odds with advocacy, business, and civil rights groups.

A key point of contention was what level of accountability the federal government should expect from states and local school districts. The Harkin-Enzi bill would have maintained NCLB's requirements on annual testing and the disaggregation (i.e., sorting) of data by subgroups, but it would have eliminated the critical requirement of annual and longer-term student achievement and graduation goals (including achievement- and grad rate-gap closing goals for historically disadvantaged groups of students). The bill stipulated that schools would only be expected to maintain “continuous progress” toward those goals.

Because it severely weakened accountability measures, the Harkin-Enzi bill drew fire from a broad and bipartisan coalition of twenty-one organizations, including: the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In its public statement the groups wrote that: “the bill’s weak accountability system excludes the vast majority of children we represent,” pointing out that states would “not have to set any measurable achievement and progress targets or even graduation rate goals.” Nor would they be required to take action in the vast majority of failing schools. The document stated that a “huge numbers of low-achieving students will slip through the cracks,” if the bill were to pass.

Most Democratic Senators and their staffs seemed surprised by this development. Perhaps this is because those with more boots on the ground in Senate offices and hallways helped create the appearance of consensus on weakening accountability, which belied the fact that there were many others, with fewer Capitol Hill boots, who wanted accountability to remain strong.

While the Senate bill did some good things, particularly on ensuring a more equitable distribution of resources across schools within the same district, the lack of an overarching accountability system made the bill a non-starter for many Democratic constituencies. Democrats in the Senate could choose to roll those groups and bring a bill to the floor in spite of their vocal opposition. It might pass.

But if Senate Democrats want to ensure passage of ESEA reauthorization with broad support from all major sectors of the party base, they need to make advocacy, business, and civil rights groups equal partners with teachers unions, administrators, and school board members from the very beginning of the process. [Update: see Senator Harkin's comments on re-thinking some ESEA reauthorization issues in light of developments in waiver process, at Senate hearing, February 7th].

House Democrats - The ESEA bill brought up in the House Education and Workforce Committee last year by Chairman John Kline was not all that different on accountability from the bipartisan Harkin-Enzi bill in the Senate. All the same groups that opposed the Senate ESEA bill - and then some - also opposed the House Republican bill on essentially the same set of accountability issues. The difference is that in the House, Democrats were fairly united in supporting the type of rigorous accountability being called for by the groups criticizing the Kline and Harkin-Enzi proposals.

Opposition to the Kline bill within the House was led by The Congressional Black, Hispanic, and Asian Pacific American Caucuses. In a sharply worded tri-caucus letter, the groups asserted that the bill abdicated responsibility for ensuring equal educational opportunity for students, the primary purpose of ESEA. In particular, they said the bill failed to promote accountability for learning gains made by low-income students, students of color, English language learners, and others.

The Ranking Democrat on the House Ed and Workforce Committee, George Miller, (D-Cal) proposed a substitute to the bill that, among other things, strengthened accountability requirements. The substitute, which was supported by all Committee Democrats and pposed by all Republicans, failed. The bill then passed out of committee on a strict party-line vote of 23-16.

Right now, all House Democrats can do is wait to see if House Republicans want to play ball. In recent statements, Kline is showing no signs of that, preferring to push proposals he knows will go nowhere, as Miller continues to call him out on it. As things go forward, those who are best at distinguishing that kind of political theater from real legislative action will be far ahead of everyone else in figuring out what, if anything, is really going on.

Tomorrow: ESEA, Politics, and The Obama Administration

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.