Senate misses goal on education rewrite

Despite the intentions of Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the Senate began its recess Friday without holding a markup on the overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

Harkin in January set the goal of having a bill “ready for markup by our Easter recess.” Negotiations between key legislators have lagged since then, although Harkin and key House members say they believe they can still pass a bill this year.

But neither the Center on Education Policy (CEP), a public education advocacy group, nor the conservative Heritage Foundation expects success.

CEP President Jack Jennings said he thinks it is still possible that Harkin could get a bill through the Senate by the end of summer but added that with the House under Republican control, that might be as far as it gets.

The reason there is no ESEA reauthorization "is because of the strong contingency in the House that doesn’t want to give [President] Obama credit for anything,” Jennings said. “It’s certainly not going to happen this year, and next year it gets doubly rough.”

Heritage Foundation spokeswoman Lindsey Burke said Republicans are simply waiting because they are still thinking about what the role of the federal government should be in education. 

“I personally don’t think we’ll see it this year,” she added.

A Republican HELP Committee spokesmen said discussions on a new bill continue between HELP ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Harkin and Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), despite a tiff Wednesday between committee Republicans and Harkin on a separate matter concerning for-profit schools.

Obama gave Congress an August deadline for passing a bill, and Harkin said he still hopes that deadline can be met, since reauthorization is already more than three years behind schedule.

“My goal is to have a bill ready for the president’s signature by late summer. Of course we have no control over the House, but I am hopeful that they will move expeditiously also in that regard,” Harkin said.

The Senate committee held 10 hearings on ESEA last year, but the House Education and Workforce Committee has been playing catch-up.

This is the first year Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) has chaired the panel. One reason the House has been delayed is that 12 GOP freshmen joined the committee in January and many had to get up to speed on the issues.

“Chairman Kline has been working very hard to educate his members,” said Education and the Workforce ranking member George Miller (D-Calif.). “It is absolutely critical that we rewrite ESEA this year. Our children can’t afford for us to wait any longer.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), the chairman of the Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education subcommittee, said last week in an interview with the American Enterprise Institute that he is still getting up to speed.

“I think it'll be done this year,” Hunter said. “Not as soon as the Senate or the president would like it to be, but I think it'll be done this year, barring any unforeseen circumstances.”

Hunter said there is bipartisan agreement on 90 percent of ESEA’s issues and that they are fine-tuning the details of the other 10 percent.

Among Enzi’s goals were to change the bill to limit federal government control and give states more flexibility.

Kline agreed with that goal at a committee hearing last week. 

“Clearly, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work ... if we are going to move forward in education, Washington has to move in a new direction,” he said.

At the same hearing, Kline hinted he might introduce the first in a series of education-reform bills — this one on “flexibility” — as soon as next month, meaning the House could beat the Senate in passing part of the reauthorization, since Harkin is still negotiating with his committee’s Republicans.

“Education continues to be an area where bipartisan agreement is possible,” Miller said. “We can all agree that the status quo is failing our students and putting our future, our economic stability and our global competitiveness at risk.”