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Down Goes ESEA Reauthorization?

As the “Great Testing Mess of 2015” grinds on, one of the questions that’s been in the back of the education world’s collective mind is how a federal ESEA reauthorization might affect state’s situations. We’ve talked before about some of the weird politics behind the reauthorization effort, and I even speculated that things may not have been looking good after President Obama failed to even mention the possibility of an ESEA reauthorization in his State of the Union speech. Unfortunately, it looks like that speculation may have been on target.

Rick Hess, a conservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and one of my education policy heroes, posted a smart article earlier this week that takes a look at our ESEA prospects after last Friday’s congressional drama. For those who don’t know, House Republicans pulled back from a vote on Rep. John Kline’s HR 5, or the Student Success Act, after failing to garner enough support. Interestingly, a nearly identical bill did pass back in 2013.

So what happened? I’ll let Rick explain:

… Back in 2013, when the U.S. House passed the Student Success Act without much drama, I was surprised. I’d expected that a number of Tea Party conservatives (several dozen or more) would simply refuse to vote for anything that might be construed as ratifying a federal role in schooling. I was wrong. The bill sailed through.

Last Friday, pretty much the same bill was to be voted on by the House (if anything, it had a few improvements that should have also made it more attractive to conservatives worried about federal overreach). I thought it would coast through given an enhanced Republican majority, the GOP’s desire to show that it can legislate responsibly now that it controls the House and Senate, and the 2013 vote. Instead, leadership delayed the vote amidst furious pushback from the Tea Party wing and a complicated situation with funding for the Department of Homeland Security.

Given HR 5’s untimely pseudo-demise, many eduwonks have turned their hopes to the Senate, where Sen. Lamar Alexander is leading his own ESEA effort. But it’s not clear that anything coming out of the Senate will stand a chance in the House.

Congressional woes and complications may not be ESEA reauthorization’s only hurdle, either. President Obama may not sign such a reauthorization even if one made it to his desk, and it’s highly unlikely that a bill barely clinging to life in Congress will be able to garner enough support to override a veto.

… The administration seems to be signaling that it’s perfectly happy to sink any potential deal. The White House, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and their allies have spent the last couple weeks drawing lines in the sand, blasting House Republicans, manufacturing new demands (like addressing pre-K in ESEA), and finding all kinds of creative ways to accuse Republicans of unconcern for low-income children. The rhetoric has quickly gone beyond mere position-taking, infuriating some conservatives.

… It’s clear that the White House won’t even discuss a bill that’s actually capable of mustering GOP support in the House. And that House Republicans are not going to go for anything that satisfies the Obama administration. Thus, whatever the Senate ultimately does, I’m wondering whether it’d be possible to negotiate a bill that can pass the House and Senate while avoiding an Obama veto.

Ah, the American political machine in action. It brings tears to my little eyes, though perhaps not for the reasons it should.

Here’s the short version: ESEA reauthorization probably isn’t going to happen this year. That means that NCLB’s complicated web (and the use of weaponized waivers from that web) will continue into the foreseeable future. But as dad always says, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. We’ve still got plenty of work to do on our end of the equation.