By Alexander Bolton - 05/01/13 09:00 AM EDT
Democratic senators from rural areas are seeking a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind law to give their constituents a better chance of competing for federal funding, a touchy subject in the majority’s conference.
A debate over education policy will likely split lawmakers along the same regional lines that divided them during the recent debate over gun control legislation.
But to change the funding formulas, Democrats from rural states will have to overcome opposition from lawmakers representing major cities and affluent suburbs.
This puts them on a collision course with members of the leadership, such as Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.).
Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who face tough reelections in 2014, are leading the push within the Democratic Conference to be more responsive to the needs of rural constituents.
Both lawmakers clashed with leaders this month over legislation to expand background checks for guns sold at shows and over the Internet.
To win reelection races in conservative-leaning states, both lawmakers need to convince voters that the Democratic Party is more than the party of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. They need to show it is also the party of no-stoplight towns.
“Race to the Top was a great idea but it didn’t really impact rural America as it could have and should have,” Begich said of Obama’s signature educational initiative.
As chairman of the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, Begich is a lower-ranking member of the Senate Democratic leadership.
“As we move to the education issue, to rewrite No Child Left Behind, the rural components will be talked about,” Begich said. “We want to make sure we don’t miss the unique challenges that rural America has: Getting qualified teachers, getting living space for them and getting them classroom capacity.”
Begich and Pryor chaired the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee’s rural summit in the Dirksen Senate Office Building last week. The disparity in federal funding for rural schools came up during the meeting.
Rural advocates argue Title I funding in No Child Left Behind — money intended to help low-income students — flows disproportionately to urban and affluent suburban areas.
“Money flows from poorer rural districts and poorer urban districts to more affluent suburban districts. That’s an issue with No Child Left Behind,” said John Hill, executive director of the National Rural Education Association.
But Hill says there’s a significant challenge addressing the funding disparity in the long-overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
“The opposition would come from more affluent suburban areas and they’re represented well in Congress,” he said.
The Formula Fairness Campaign, an initiative sponsored by the Rural School and Community Trust, has found that the federal government provides almost twice as much money per disadvantaged student in Philadelphia, Pa., (population: 1.5 million) as in Philadelphia, Miss., (population: 7,500).
“If you come from a high-poverty, low-population place, the per-pupil spending is less,” said Robert Mahaffey, communications director at the Rural School and Community Trust.
Begich said Race to the Top needs to do more to encourage private corporations to take a stake in rural schools.
“We don’t get private sector matches for small communities,” he said.
Democratic leaders have shown little eagerness to bring education reauthorization legislation to the floor this year, focusing instead on gun control and immigration reform legislation.
House Republican leaders have not made it much of a priority, either.
Obama promised to overhaul education law during the 2008 campaign, but there has been little progress since.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP), is eager to get the issue moving.
“The reauthorization of ESEA is long overdue, and there is consensus across the aisle that we must fix the problems of No Child Left Behind and ensure a quality education for all of our students, regardless of background,” he said in a statement to The Hill.
The Senate HELP Committee passed the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in October 2011, but it subsequently stalled.
Begich has a strong potential ally in Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who in recent weeks has shown his willingness to challenge Democratic leaders.
In the last Congress, Baucus introduced legislation to establish a federal office of rural education policy. In March, the Senate agreed by unanimous consent to adopt a nonbinding budget amendment, sponsored by Baucus, calling for the establishment of a deficit-neutral reserve fund to support rural schools.