The Not-So-Secret Recipe for ESEA Reauthorization

It’s been 50 years since President Johnson first signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) into law. Tomorrow also happens to mark the 13th birthday of the last reauthorization of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). As NCLB moves into its teenage years, and as the edu-intelligentsia anxiously anticipates another attempt at updating the law, it’s worth revisiting how we got our last reauthorization. A 2003 article by Andrew Rudalevige for Education Next provides a great historical overview. If you care about federal education sausage-making, go re-read the whole thing.

The article presents a nice comparison to today, and it makes clear that a reauthorization isn’t just some magical act of one or two people. It takes a whole group of people and conditions to fall into place. Namely:

1. The President. George W. Bush campaigned on his vision for the federal education law, Bill Clinton had personally fought for education reform as Arkansas governor, and the law’s original sponsor, Lyndon Johnson, had personally been a teacher and champion of education. President Obama released his own vision for ESEA 5 years ago, but K-12 education hasn’t been at the forefront of his thinking lately.

2. Moderates. Any big piece of legislation requires moderates to take tough votes to enact it. This was no different in 2001-2, when a coalition of moderate Democrats and Republicans helped push the bill to completion.

3. Bi-partisanship. This could be considered a subset of #2 above, but the EdNext piece does a thorough job of explaining all the things that the bill’s sponsors wanted but didn’t get out of the final bill. That compromise was essential in ensuring a wide majority supported the bill.

4. Time. A complicated piece of legislation takes time to enact. Even after President Bush was elected specifically championing education reform, it took a bi-partisan Congress until January 2002, a full year after inauguration, to send him a final bill.

5. Money. In order to grease the skids and encourage broader support, the bill expanded the total amount of federal money spent on education, and it created new programs devoted to pet causes of various congressional groups.

Go read the full piece. I don’t present it here as a perfect comparison to today’s world–a reauthorization could pass without these factors in place–but they do present a nice check-list of things to consider as we evaluate the prospects for this year’s reauthorization attempts. By my scorecard, the current talks fail on all five of these factors.