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Obama could push education reform in effort to work with a divided Congress

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By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 2:24 PM

If President Obama is seeking common ground with Republicans in the next Congress, one major domestic issue seems ripe for deal-making: education.

Obama aides say the administration plans early next year to accelerate its push for a rewrite of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law. That effort will face plenty of obstacles from both sides of the aisle in a divided Congress.

But key Republican lawmakers appear receptive to the president's overtures on education reform in part because Obama backs teacher performance pay, charter schools and other innovations that challenge union orthodoxy.

"This is a top, top priority for the president," said Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. "This is and has been a bipartisan issue. We think it transcends ideology."

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), who is in line to become chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said: "We need to fix No Child Left Behind. That is going to be a bipartisan effort."

This year, senior Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate met at least three times with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other administration officials to lay the groundwork for revision of the 2002 education law. Obama proposed a blueprint in March that would give most public schools more leeway in how they pursue reform - except for those with the lowest test scores - and eliminate some controversial provisions of the law.

At the same time, the administration awarded $4 billion for home-grown school improvement efforts in states such as Tennessee - home to Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican leader on education - through the Race to the Top competition. Those experiments have gone hand in hand with a ground-breaking movement for national academic standards that has won approval from dozens of states with support from Democratic and Republican governors.

In general, Republicans did not make education a campaign issue. The House Republican platform known as "A Pledge to America" omitted any mention of the word. As a result, the rhetorical temperature on education is cooler than on taxes, spending, health care, energy and other topics on which emboldened Republicans are sure to confront the president.

All of that suggests fertile ground for education legislation.

But some analysts doubt that the next Congress, with a robust House Republican majority and a weakened Democratic Senate majority, will send an education reform bill to Obama's desk.

"I think we're headed for deadlock for a couple years," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy. He participated in several revisions of federal education law from the 1960s to the 1990s as a Democratic congressional aide.

Jennings predicted the Republican drive to unseat Obama in 2012 will trump all else when GOP lawmakers weigh whether to cut a deal with the president. "They don't want to give him any victories on anything," Jennings said. "I can't see them wanting to give him a victory on education."


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