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Deal Possible for Education Reform

No Child Left Behind May Be One Area of Bipartisanship for Obama and GOP

Leslie E. Kossoff/Getty Images

Republicans and President Barack Obama may be able to leave partisanship behind when it comes to reforming the nation’s leading education law.

Obama on Monday called on lawmakers to send him legislation that revamps the nation’s No Child Left Behind Act before the next school year begins in late summer. During remarks at a middle school in Arlington, Va., he ticked off the reasons it is time for an overhaul of President George W. Bush’s signature education initiative, which many have said is in need of revisions.

“As many as a quarter of American students aren’t finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. And America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree. Understand, we used to be first, and we now rank ninth,” Obama said. “That’s not acceptable.”

The president also cited an “astonishing” new analysis from the Department of Education that shows more than
80 percent of public schools will be labeled as “failing” under the current system.

“Our impulse is to either be outraged that the numbers are so high or skeptical that they’re even true. And let’s face it, skepticism is somewhat justified,” he continued. But the “good news” is that both parties in Congress are ready to tweak No Child Left Behind because “they recognize education is an area where we can’t afford to drag our feet.”

The president has been talking up the need for education reform in recent months — and has been applauded by both parties for doing so.

He highlighted the issue in his State of the Union address, and last week he met with the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate education committees to discuss the next steps for revamping the law. All parties emerged with consensus that an overhaul is needed now.

“Although we have our different approaches, everyone agrees the current law is broken and in need of repair. ... We are engaging our colleagues on both sides of the aisle and listening to the concerns of state and local education leaders,” House Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) said.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said meeting participants discussed “the important opportunity we have to act quickly on these areas of agreement and advance our nation’s education system to better serve students.”

Indeed, education reform is one of the few issues that is quietly picking up bipartisan steam at a time when Congress appears to be at loggerheads. Both chambers held hearings on the issue last year that led to Democratic and Republican agreements.

HELP alone held 10 hearings, which “built a lot of bipartisan consensus” heading into the new Congress, one senior Senate Democratic aide said. That consensus led Harkin to declare in January that he is aiming for a bill in committee around Easter recess.

“There is definitely a real shot of getting this done,” by the summer, a senior House Democratic aide said.

A senior Senate GOP aide said the fact that Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) is participating in the same talks as HELP ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) is “a good indicator that GOP leadership is open to moving a bill.”

But for all the agreement on the need for action, senior Republican aides are still cautioning that key details need to be worked out. For starters, some GOP aides say Obama’s call on Monday for a final package by August is arbitrary and rings of the string of missed deadlines that he attached to health care reform legislation over the past two years.

The president’s announcement that he wants legislation on his desk by late summer “came a little bit out of left field,” one House GOP leadership aide said. “I’m not sure how possible it is.”

The consensus in last week’s White House meeting was that “everyone would like to get something done this year,” but not necessarily by the summer, the aide added. “This August is pushing it.”

And a senior Senate Republican aide said that while there is “wide bipartisan support” for reforming the law, Republican support will likely depend on who drafts it.

“Will it be [unions] writing the bill or Senators?” this aide asked.

Even Kline signaled Monday that while he is eager to move forward, he won’t be rushed on the issue.

“We need to take the time to get this right. We cannot allow an arbitrary timeline to undermine quality reforms that encourage innovation, flexibility, and parental involvement,” the Minnesota Republican said in a statement shortly after Obama’s remarks.

For now, aides to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) say that while education reform is on their radar, they are waiting for their respective committees to take action before talking about timing for floor debates.

Boehner could play a unique role in shaping this debate given that he was an original co-author of No Child Left Behind as the former chairman of the House education panel. But his office wouldn’t give any insight into whether the Speaker may get more involved in negotiations because of his past experience.

“Chairman Kline will be leading our efforts on any education reform,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said.

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