The 2010 Election and Its Impact on ESEA

The 2010 mid-term election changed the face of Congress more so than any previous election. Beginning January 2010, there will be at least 90 new faces in the U.S. House of Representatives and several new ones in the Senate. We will again have a divided government as we had in 1994.

In the past, education has been a bipartisan issue and people found a way to come to agreement on legislation. It is not clear that this will be the case in the 112th Congress with the Democrats in the majority in the Senate, the Republicans holding the majority in the House, and a Democrat in the White House. Can they work together? What does this mean for education policy and funding? In two years we have a Presidential election, so each party wants to have some successes under their belt. Will education be one since its roots and impact are felt locally?

During the campaign, several education issues were raised by a number of winning Republican candidates. These included eliminate the Department of Education, scale back the Federal role in education, reduce regulations and reduce the federal workforce. What does this all mean, especially considering the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), aka No Child Left Behind (NCLB)?

Since the passage of NCLB, the face of leadership in both the authorizing and appropriating committees has had significant changes. In the 112th Congress, no longer serving are Senators Kennedy, Gregg, Byrd, Dodd and Specter, and Congressmen Obey and Castle. Also, Congressmen McKeon and Boehner have significantly different roles with only the latter having influence on legislative priorities as the new Speaker of the House. Yes, Congressman Miller and Senator Harkin still have significant roles. However, there will be many newcomers to the House Education and Labor Committee, who will require an “education process” to get up to speed. A majority of them have come to Congress with a different agenda — a smaller Federal role in education.

For months, committee staff of both houses and parties have been meeting to discuss issues and concerns, and how to address them in a bill, as well as listening to education stakeholders about their views and ideas for reauthorization. While the work has been very cooperative, there is still a philosophical divide on some major issues.

On November 3 (the day after the mid-term elections), the ranking minority member of the House Education and Labor Committee, Congressman John Kline (Minn.) and soon-to-be the committee’s next chair, sent out a press release with his four priorities that included “pursuing education reform that restores local control, empowers parents, lets teachers teach and protects taxpayers.”

Congress’ lame duck session will only last about two weeks beginning on November 15. The current agenda does not include education except for extending the Continuing Resolution to fund programs for the current fiscal year.

At present, there seem to be two options for ESEA reauthorization on the table. The first is the obvious one — a full reauthorization of ESEA. The second option, suggested by Senator Lamar Alexander of Tenn. (former U.S. Secretary of Education), would be a targeted reauthorization that includes some of the bigger pieces of ESEA, and then eventually fully reauthorize the other parts of the bill. In option two the thorny issues would be addressed such as Title I and its formula, Title II, English Language Learners, School Improvement Grants and how to continue the Innovation grants and Race to the Top. Will they choose either? Surely, there will be other proposals in the coming months.

As the first session of the 112th Congress approaches, the prognosis for reauthorization is not very good. If one were to poll the “experts,” you would receive a variety of opinions and predictions. Committee staffers are hopeful, but realistic given the new make-up of Congress. Those who have either worked on the Hill and now lobby or those who work as insiders to the policy process are skeptical of any chance of reauthorization in either session of the 112th Congress. Also, they are doubtful there would be a reauthorization in a Presidential election year, which is 2012.

The sentiment of Senate Democratic staffers is only a full reauthorization bill would be acceptable and thus not agreeing to Senator Alexander’s option. On the House side, committee staff from both parties think a patchwork bill might make it through. As for the lobbyists and policy group, there is a mixed sentiment. Some believe the Alexander approach has a three to one chance of making it, but few if any believe that a full reauthorization is possible in 2011.

So where does that leave education reform, including the needed changes to the legislation? Most likely it means programmatic policy and guidance changes by the Department. Some new and old members of Congress will probably interpret these as overstepping authority (increased Federal role) and challenge it. However, SEAs and LEAs are asking for more flexibility and how to fix issues such as AYP given the large number of schools not making it. It is a dilemma that will have to be addressed in some other way than reauthorization. One big question is who will take the lead to get it done or move things forward in Congress or at least try to? And a second, what will the administration do?

Fritz Edelstein is a principal in the Public Private Action, a consulting group. His work focuses on strategic government and constituent relations; business development strategy; advocacy research and policy analysis; strategic planning and resource development; and advocacy, outreach and public engagement. This work includes producing Fritzwire, the leading education Internet newsletter providing timely information on education and related issues. He can be reached at fritz@publicprivateaction.com.

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