Tag Archives: bipartisanship

Why Patty Murray is the Key to an ESEA Deal

Yesterday, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) released his hotly awaited discussion draft for a reauthorization of ESEA: the Every Child Ready for College or Career Act of 2015. But given that the 114th Congress has only been in session for a couple weeks, it should come as no surprise that this draft isn’t really new. It’s mostly his 2013 bill (of the same name) repackaged, as Chad Aldeman wrote earlier. Still, Alexander is determined to shepherd it through Congress by summer, despite the fact that this proposal failed to win a single Democratic vote in committee last time around.

But maybe times have changed. At least that’s what some, like Fordham’s Mike Petrilli, are hoping. After all, in floor speeches yesterday, both Alexander and Senate HELP Committee ranking member Patty Murray (D-WA) praised the virtues of bipartisanship in fixing No Child Left Behind. And Murray is known for being a savvy consensus-builder in her time at the helm of the Senate Budget Committee.

I wouldn’t count on it this time. That’s because Alexander and Murray may agree on the tone of the debate, but not on policy. And in Senator Murray’s view, the problem with NCLB is not an out-of-control federal government. Rather, Murray defended the federal role, even though her own state lost its waiver from NCLB because of it, and laid out key principles for reauthorization that echoed Secretary Duncan’s remarks on Monday: the need for a new ESEA to ensure that states adopt high standards, better and more streamlined annual testing systems, and strong accountability policies, alongside increased investments in innovation and early childhood.

As leader of the committee Democrats and a member of Senate minority leadership, Murray’s ESEA stance is a leading indicator of how Alexander’s draft will be received, and proceed, through the Senate. Her remarks may not have been as forceful as the Secretary’s, but that only proves her value in the coming negotiations–as one that could bring the two sides closer together (UPDATE: especially after Duncan’s tepid reaction to the draft bill).

But in making so few changes to his 2013 draft bill, Alexander has yet to make a serious effort to bring Murray into the fold. And that’s a mistake. It’s true that her support may not be critical to getting Alexander the 60 votes he needs on the floor, especially if he tries to woo anti-testing, union-friendly Democrats. But her support remains critical to getting the 60 votes Alexander will need to get a bill to President Obama that he can sign.

If these are Murray’s policy preferences—and if Secretary Duncan insists on combatting the “soft bigotry of ‘it’s optional’”—then Alexander’s draft bill just isn’t going to cut it. Not in the super-majority Senate, and not on the President’s desk.

NCLB Reauthorization Lies Through the Center, But Can It Hold?

Like clockwork, every two years, Congress decides it’s time to debate a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). And the alarm is set to go off again, with NCLB at the top of the legislative agenda for the incoming Republican chairmen of the House and Senate education committees. After sessions marked by record-breaking inefficiency, could the 114th Congress be the one that finally gets an NCLB rewrite done?

It would be fitting, after all, with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act turning 50 next year. And nobody seems to care for Secretary Duncan’s NCLB waiver strategy in lieu of a permanent reauthorization. Plus, with the ascendance of Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and a changing of the guard on the left after the retirements of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA), it’s possible that new leadership could move past the partisanship that marred the last attempt to rewrite the law in 2013.

But which direction will they move? If the end goal is a bipartisan reauthorization, there are actually two ways GOP leadership could attempt to piece together a coalition:

  1. Bring together the wings. One of the most unusual developments over the past year or so is the convergence of the extremes of both parties. Staunch conservatives on the right, incensed by what they consider to be egregious federal overreach in regards to Common Core, teacher evaluations, and school turnarounds, have found common ground with unions and progressives on the left, fed up with what they see as out-of-control standardized testing and its undue influence on high-stakes accountability for schools and teachers. The solution, for both, is the same: gut NCLB’s signature standards, testing, and accountability provisions, and devolve most authority back to states and local districts. In other words, federal education policy circa 1994.

The problem is, of course, that standards-based accountability–or lack thereof–is one of the only things this motley bipartisan coalition could agree on. The right would like Title I portability, or even vouchers, in the law, or to expand the use of block grants to trim categorical programs. But if there’s one thing progressives and the unions won’t tolerate it’s less money for public education, or the loss of dedicated funding streams for certain programs (arts education, afterschool programs, English language learners, incarcerated youth, etc.). With those policy preferences, the wings of both parties are unlikely to coalesce around a complete NCLB reauthorization–there are just too many roadblocks over funding, choice, and other provisions. And even if they can come to some agreement on funding (say, a large increase in Title I formula funds in exchange for converting most of it to block grants), it’s even less likely that President Obama would sign such a bill if it’s main selling feature is “ending the Obama administration’s National School Board.” Continue reading