Divided Congress may be fertile ground for No Child reform

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010; A28

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 efforts to rewrite the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law. Plenty of obstacles loom in a divided Congress.

But key Republicans 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. "I would suspect there will be a big push for this."

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 congressional Democrats and Republicans met at least three times with Education Secretary Arne Duncan to lay the groundwork for revising the 2002 law. Obama proposed a blueprint in March that would give public schools - except those with the lowest test scores - more leeway in how they pursue reform and eliminate some controversial provisions.

At the same time, the administration awarded $4 billion for school improvement in states such as Tennessee - home to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R), a leader on education - through Race to the Top grants. Those experiments have gone hand in hand with a movement for national academic standards that has won approval from dozens of states.

Education was barely an issue in the campaign. The House Republican platform known as the "Pledge to America" omitted any mention of the word. As a result, the rhetorical temperature on education is cooler than on taxes, health care and other topics Republicans have raised.

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 Obama an education bill.

"I think we're headed for deadlock for a couple years," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy. He predicted that the urge to unseat Obama in 2012 will trump all else in GOP dealings with the president. "I can't see them wanting to give him a victory on education," Jennings said.

The No Child law forced schools to expand standardized testing in reading and math and set a goal for all students to become proficient in those subjects by 2014. It also established an array of interventions - including student transfer options and administrative shake-ups - for schools that fail to make adequate progress.

The legislation was overwhelmingly approved by a Congress that is 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) helped broker an accord with Democrats. Now Boehner is in line to become House speaker.

But there are limits to the parallels of a decade ago. President George W. Bush persuaded his party to accept a larger federal role in schools. Now Republicans aim to diminish that role. Some suggest they want to abolish the Education Department. Kline played down such statements.

"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."

Without doubt, lawmakers and analysts say, Republicans will resist some of Obama's prescriptions for struggling schools, especially those that require personnel turnover. And they will balk at increased spending, which means funding to lubricate a reform deal will be in short supply. Bush, in contrast, 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 that they are open to teacher performance pay. But they have raised questions about 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.), the outgoing House education chairman, said prospects for school reform have grown as labor-management divisions 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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