December 17, 2014

ESEA In 2015?

By Bellwether

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Part of success is belief. So it’s worth paying attention to how an increasing number of people believe an Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) renewal bill is possible in 2015.  By way of background, ESEA is the overarching law governing federal involvement and support for K-12 schools first enacted in 1965.  Most recently reauthorized in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act , ESEA was set to be renewed in 2007 but partisan, inter-party, and inter-chamber disagreements since then have thwarted efforts to update the law. For the past several years the Obama Administration has offered states a set of waivers from various provisions of the law in an effort to update it absent congressional action.

Now, with Senator Alexander (R-TN) taking over the Senate committee  that handles education there is an increasing sense that something might happen in 2015. Insiders are talking about it, legislative language is circulating, and a forthcoming Whiteboard Advisors Education Insiders survey  shows some (but hardly overwhelming) movement on its forecast of ESEA likelihood.

The factors for action are pretty compelling, but the obstacles are as well. Big substantive issues include accountability, annual testing, data privacy, and school choice are out there and the politics are complicated.

Let’s start with what makes ESEA reauthorization likely?

First, the law is way out of date and increasingly chaotic for school administrators as a result.

Second, Senator Alexander says it’s a priority, is acting like that behind the scenes, he can make a deal, and he will be in the majority come January. Democrats in the Senate are staffing up as well with an eye toward people who can make a deal.  Alexander has a resume on education without peer on Capitol Hill – former Secretary of Education, college president, and policymaker.

Third, the House can act at anytime given the rules of that body and the Republican majority and the education committee chairman there says it is a priority as well.

Fourth, the advocacy and interest groups that have successfully beaten back some past efforts to update the law and weaken its accountability provisions are somewhat in disarray these days.  It’s unclear where the rallying point for pro-accountability Democrats and centrist-Republicans is right now.

Fifth, the distance between the flexibility and lack of accountability states enjoy under the waivers and what a reauthorized ESEA would look like has closed as the politics have changed. This means states have less incentive to stay with a waiver-status quo than they did a few years ago when reauthorization might have led to a more active approach from Washington.

Finally, Republicans know they need to show they can govern and ESEA is one of the few issues where the contours of an actually bipartisan Senate deal are visible. Annoyance with the ESEA waivers and a desire to curtail what the president is doing on schools could swamp all the substantive issues.

Obstacles against?

First, like space it turns out ESEA is hard. There are significant disagreements between the two chambers, within both parties, between the parties, and with the administration. Even against the backdrop of NCLB fatigue and a desire to get something done that’s a lot to overcome.

Second, choice. It’s hard to see President Obama signing an ESEA bill with a strong private-school choice component. And it’s hard to see a lot of Republicans – newly in the majority in both chambers – being happy passing a big education bill that doesn’t include one of the party’s key priorities . It’s harder still given conservative discontent about the omnibus bill that just passed during the lame duck. At a minimum there is a lot of support (and bipartisan votes in the Senate) to reinstate the D.C. voucher program but an appetite among the base for more. What’s the incentive for incoming Majority Leader McConnell to roll his conservative base on an education bill of all things by passing a choice-free ESEA bill? One solution, a separate choice package but that requires a lot of maneuvering and deals.

Third, at some point the Republican base will presumably wake up and wonder why less conservative Republicans are championing a bill that could shape up to be a Christmas list for the teachers unions: No choice, no annual assessments, less accountability for schools and school districts and none at all for teachers? That’s pretty much the teachers union policy playbook. That means tough amendments, a big target for Republicans running for president, or a bill that doesn’t end up on the Senate floor if conservatives start paying attention.

Fourth, the clock. The next session of Congress will fly by and there is a lot on the agenda substantively and politically.

Finally, The White House. With control of the White House up for grabs in 2016 the backdrop of a national campaign will influence the thinking of both parties. The best hope for ESEA is that it happens even before the “ideas primary” gets going later in 2015. Otherwise, start thinking about ESEA 2017.

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