It Sure Wasn’t Pretty, but Harkin-Enzi’s Out of Committee

The Senate HELP committee voted Thursday night to send the Harkin-Enzi ESEA bill to the floor. It passed 15-7, with support from all of the Democrats and three Republicans (Mike Enzi, Lamar Alexander, and Mark Kirk). Now, let the analysis begin! Here are five thoughts:

1. This is a big deal, folks. The ESEA reauthorization process hasn’t gotten this far since–well, ever. In 2007 the House education committee floated a draft bill which then died an ignominious death. The Senate HELP committee has never produced a bill . So to have a comprehensive bill marked up and sent to the floor represents a significant milestone.

2. President Obama and Secretary Duncan deserve credit for spurring the Senate into action. It’s not a coincidence that a bill emerged and a mark-up was held just weeks after the announcement of the Administration’s waiver package. And the discussion over the past few days makes it clear that Senators on both sides of the aisle are motivated to get their job done to stave off the waivers from taking effect. So while I’m not a fan of conditional waivers as a policy, I must admit that it was an effective tool for waking the Senate out of its slumber.

3. Republicans are in the driver’s seat. Yesterday’s unanimous Democratic vote might have been a display of party unity, but it also demonstrated a willingness to vote for almost anything. The Democrats want to send a bill to the President, and they will need Republican votes in order to do that. So expect GOP senators like Lamar Alexander to make their support contingent on key changes to the bill–and to get a lot of what they want. Meanwhile, the House bills (which are being put together in pieces) will surely come out to the right of the Senate. If Democrats want to get something across the finish line, they are going to have to accept something that looks a lot more like Alexander-Burr than Harkin-Enzi.

4. The civil rights groups and lefty reformers are getting rolled. What became clear from the mark-up is that there’s very little support in Congress for federal oversight of state accountability systems. Except for Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, nobody seemed interested in getting “annual objectives” or achievement-gap-closing metrics back into the bill. And where do the aggrieved lefty groups go from here? They won’t be able to get an accountability amendment passed on the Senate floor. There’s no way a House bill will include it. So then what? Try again in 2013? Why would anyone think the politics will be any better? (Same goes for federal intrusion into teacher evaluation.) The bottom line is that federal accountability hawks have lost this argument. It’s time to move on.

5. Let’s admit it: Harkin-Enzi is better than current law. I’ve still got a lot of beefs with it (especially around its high school interventions and inclusion of the highly-qualified teachers mandate). But for Reform Realists, it represents several steps in the right direction. It focuses the federal role on transparency instead of accountability. It encourages a look at student growth instead of a one-time snapshot. Thanks to Lamar Alexander’s work over the past week, it shows a willingness to let states take the lead on key issues like teacher evaluation and school turnarounds. Assuming that the  House bills will be even better, I would claim that reauthorization is finally heading in a hopeful direction.

-Mike Petrilli

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