It’s Not Looking Good for ESEA Reauthorization

As recently as November, I doubted there was much chance that NCLB/ESEA would be reauthorized before the end of the Obama presidency. After the election, especially when Senator Lamar Alexander made it clear that he was going to push on this, I started to think that reauthorization had a real shot—maybe a 25% or 35% chance of happening. After last week, I think the chance of a reauthorization getting passed is back under 5%.

First, a bit of context: Back in 2013, when the U.S. House passed the Student Success Act without much drama, I was surprised. I’d expected that a number of Tea Party conservatives (several dozen or more) would simply refuse to vote for anything that might be construed as ratifying a federal role in schooling. I was wrong. The bill sailed through.

Last Friday, pretty much the same bill was to be voted on by the House (if anything, it had a few improvements that should have also made it more attractive to conservatives worried about federal overreach). I thought it would coast through given an enhanced Republican majority, the GOP’s desire to show that it can legislate responsibly now that it controls the House and Senate, and the 2013 vote. Instead, leadership delayed the vote amidst furious pushback from the Tea Party wing and a complicated situation with funding for the Department of Homeland Security.

Meanwhile, the administration seems to be signaling that it’s perfectly happy to sink any potential deal. The White House, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and their allies have spent the last couple weeks drawing lines in the sand, blasting House Republicans, manufacturing new demands (like addressing pre-K in ESEA), and finding all kinds of creative ways to accuse Republicans of unconcern for low-income children. The rhetoric has quickly gone beyond mere position-taking, infuriating some conservatives.

So, while it’s seemed for the past few months like the Senate was going to be the seat of the action, I’m wondering how much developments in the Senate will ultimately matter. After all, the House will struggle to pass the Student Success Act (HR5). It certainly won’t be able to pass anything to the left of HR5—and an Alexander-Murray compromise is obviously going to be to the left of HR5. Meanwhile, it’s clear that the White House won’t even discuss a bill that’s actually capable of mustering GOP support in the House. And that House Republicans are not going to go for anything that satisfies the Obama administration. Thus, whatever the Senate ultimately does, I’m wondering whether it’d be possible to negotiate a bill that can pass the House and Senate while avoiding an Obama veto (there wouldn’t be the votes needed to overcome a veto).

Now, I have seen it suggested that Tea Party pushback defections in the House could have a surprising effect—yielding a less conservative ESEA reauthorization, because House Speaker Boehner will have to turn to the Democrats for the necessary votes. I’ll just say that I find such a scenario, umm, unlikely. Anyone who’s been paying attention to the House over the past few years would, I think, find it hard to imagine Boehner passing a major bill with Democratic votes while telling Tea Partiers to go soak their heads. For one thing, the concessions needed to win enough Democratic votes would quickly alienate Republicans (who aren’t all that thrilled about voting for a federal education bill, anyway), so I’m not sure the math would work. For another, even if Boehner was inclined to do this (which I really, really doubt), it would trigger a rebellion in the ranks—and could cost him the speakership. And, keep in mind that this is a federal education bill we’re talking about; as far as most Hill Republicans are concerned, they’ve got much bigger fish to fry.

One other thought: I do have plenty of sympathy for the Tea Partiers who are pushing back on the Student Success Act. (This is not a reflection on the quality of the legislation. I think the SSA is a terrific bill and one that conservatives can wholeheartedly embrace. For what it’s worth, I thought the same of the Alexander draft.) After Obama and Bush, it’s not irrational to fear that every hint of federal authority in education is an open door. Duncan has used waivers and Race to the Top, often at the enthusiastic behest of its state and local allies, to have Washington take the lead on everything from teacher evaluation to state standards—sometimes in direct contravention of statute. So I respect and sympathize with the desire to lash out and push back. I think SSA does that in a smart, measured, and effective way—but I get why some conservatives might see it as capitulation. Such arguments are healthy and inevitable.

The bottom line is that it’s looking increasingly like Secretary Duncan is going get to keep on enjoying his waivers through January 2017. That will make him happy, I trust. If that proves to be the case, though, the real question is going to be what kinds of conditions Duncan’s successor is going to choose to impose. I just hope that those who’ve cheered and apologized for Duncan’s waivers will be consistent in their pro-waiver enthusiasm, even if they don’t like the particulars imposed in 2017 by Secretary Darling-Hammond or Secretary Jindal.

– Rick Hess

This first appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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