Harkin-Enzi’s Hodgepodge

We finally have a serious, thoughtful ESEA reauthorization proposal in the Senate, one that should gain support from both sides of the aisle and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. But here’s a warning: It’s not the bill that the Senate is currently marking up.

No, that bill, authored by education-committee chairman Tom Harkin and ranking member Mike Enzi, is a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas that should alarm folks on the right and the left.

And sure enough, progressives have already made their opinions clear on why the bill should be stopped dead in its tracks. But it should offend conservatives (including the Reform Realists among us) too, though for very different reasons. Such conservatives should back the aforementioned proposal put forward by Senators Alexander, Burr, and others, instead.

Here are the Harkin-Enzi bill’s major offenses:

  • An expansive new reach into high schools. While the legislation deserves credit for handing many accountability decisions back to the states, it would launch a whole new series of federal interventions in the nation’s worst high schools. Targeting “dropout factories” might sound like a good idea until you consider the Department of Education’s capacity (or lack thereof) for tackling something so complicated and complex from Washington.
  • Maintaining the onerous “highly qualified teachers” mandate. One of No Child Left Behind’s most hated provisions is the requirement that teachers earn designation as “highly qualified.” Not only did this get the feds into the position of micromanaging teacher qualifications, it also did so in a clumsy way, focusing on paper credentials. The Administration’s waiver package moves to a policy of “non-enforcement” around this provision, signaling that it’s time to move on. And the Alexander proposal scraps it entirely. Meanwhile, Harkin-Enzi keeps the “highly qualified” rules in place for newly hired teachers.
  • Rather than eliminating or consolidating wasteful programs, it adds new ones. As far as I can tell, few major programs are put on the chopping block, and several more are created, including a new initiatives for high schools, STEM, literacy, and “safe and healthy schools.” As the country is running a historic deficit, this is the best we can do?

Leading Republicans, including ranking member Enzi and Senator Lamar Alexander, have already signaled that they will vote to get the bill out of committee but can’t support “sending it to the president” in its current form. Here’s hoping that somewhere along the road to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (House of Representatives, we’re looking at you!), these onerous provisions fall by the wayside.

Otherwise, Republicans would be wise to scrap the bill and start over—with Senator Alexander’s proposal as the jumping-off point. It’s a much stronger bill, closer in many ways to the Administration’s own Blueprint, and much more serious about re-calibrating the federal role in education. And if Democrats won’t go for that—well, wait for a more favorable environment in 2013.

-Mike Petrilli

This article first appeared in the Education Gadfly.

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