Last week, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate forged an unlikely alliance when they agreed in committee on a rewrite of the federal education authorization law. Both liberal Democrat Tom Harkin and conservative Republican Mike Enzi crafted the bill, which promises to limit the federal mandates put forth originally in No Child Left Behind.
But Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has been pushing hard for Congress to pass education reauthorization, isn't fully pleased with the result.
“I really appreciate the bipartisan effort,” Duncan said in a phone interview. “My concern is that the bill doesn’t take student achievement seriously.”
The bill's sponsors would seem to disagree. After the bill passed the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on October 20 (after a grueling 13-hour markup), Harkin praised his handiwork.
"This bill will ensure that students graduate from school ready for college and careers and focus federal resources where they will be most effective," Harkin said in a statement. "It will replace punitive sanctions and labels with supports for teaching and learning, increase flexibility for innovation on the local level, and distribute resources equitably to ensure a top-notch education for every American student."
According to the New York Times, Harkin says both sides of the aisle were prompted to act by the Department of Education’s recent decision to begin issuing states waivers—without congressional approval—from federal mandates:
Legislation rewriting the No Child Left Behind education law finally gained traction this week, and the Senate Democrat whose committee passed the bill said on Friday that progress became possible because lawmakers were irritated by the Obama administration’s offering states waivers to the law’s key provisions.
“Some of us on both sides of the aisle were upset with them coming out with the waiver package that they did, so that spurred us on,” Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who heads the Senate education committee, said in an interview. “It gave us a sense of urgency.”
Indeed, members of Congress introduced a flurry of bills soon after the Obama administration announced its waiver package, though Duncan didn’t say whether President Obama would sign the Harkin-Enzi bill as written if it passed Congress. “Our goal is to improve it,” he said. “We’re in the early innings.”
The Democratic education lobby certainly has reason to celebrate the current bill. “We couldn’t be happier,” Bruce Hunter, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, told the Times. “The current law is so toxic, and they’ve had a hard time in Congress for a long while coalescing on how to fix it.”
Meanwhile Republicans, who have become increasingly averse to federal mandates, are embracing their Reagan-era roots in opposing federal involvement in education. In a phone interview, Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute says even mainstream elements of the party, including moderates like Senator (and former Education Secretary) Lamar Alexander, are retreating from Bush-era reforms. He noted that it's "not really clear what the 'conservative' position would be" on the reauthorization bill and the role of the federal government in public education.
“No Child Left Behind will be seen as a bit of a historical aberration,” said Petrilli, who worked for the Department of Education during the Bush administration. He says that conservatives may be rightly looking at that law as federal overreach but warns against a “cross-current against accountability” on a state and local level.
Duncan, for his part, is trying to make the case to his fellow Democrats that teacher accountability is a necessary part of improving schools and urging Republicans to reconsider their opposition to federal involvement in education.
“We need to reward and encourage and incentivize,” Duncan said.