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

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."

The No Child Left Behind law, which President George W. Bush signed in January 2002, forced public schools to expand standardized testing in reading and math and set a goal for all students to become proficient in those subjects by 2014. The law also established an array of interventions - from student transfer options to administrative shakeups - for schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress.

The legislation won overwhelming bipartisan approval from a Congress in some ways similar to the one that will convene in January. In late 2001, Republicans controlled the House and Democrats the Senate. That year, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was a key player in reaching accord with Democrats. Now Boehner is in line to become House speaker.

But there are limits to the parallels of a decade ago. Bush helped persuade his party to accept a much-expanded federal profile in education. Now Republicans aim to diminish the federal role. Some even suggested this year that they wanted to abolish the Education Department - a view that harks back to the party's position on education before No Child Left Behind. Kline played down the significance of the "abolish the department" movement.

"In some ways, that's sort of a talking point," Kline said. "There will be those who campaigned on that language. I'm not sure they always know what it means."

But without doubt, lawmakers and analysts say, Republicans will resist some of Obama's prescriptions for fixing failing schools, especially those that require personnel turnover in struggling rural schools. And they will balk at increased education spending, which means that funding to lubricate a reform deal will be in short supply. That is another contrast with the dynamic on education in 2001 and 2002. Bush presided over a big increase in education spending.

Among Democrats, there is significant debate over Obama's education agenda. Union leaders, who are closely allied with congressional Democrats, have shown through recent contract negotiations in the District and other cities across the country that they are open to teacher performance pay. But they have raised sharp questions about Race to the Top and other policies that they say give teachers too many burdens and too little help.

"There are disagreements on how to get where we're going," Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers union, said of Obama's agenda. "But there's agreement on where we are and where we need to be."

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who will cede the House education committee chairmanship to Republicans in January, said prospects for reform have grown as labor-management divisions over school policy have ebbed. "The old days of defending the status quo have kind of evaporated over the last two years," Miller said.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said there is momentum to rewrite the law. "There's general agreement we've got to make some changes," Harkin said. "We just don't want to wait anymore."

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