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Bipartisan efforts to overhaul the No Child Left Behind Act have been bogged down, leading frustrated Senate Republicans to propose their own package to free states from many of the law’s mandates.
Revising the decade-old law had been one of the few areas that seemed ripe for bipartisan compromise earlier this year, but slow progress in talks between Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) prompted Republican lawmakers on the committee to put their own proposals on the table Wednesday.
“We need to get on with it,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the No. 3 Senate Republican and a former secretary of Education, in a briefing with reporters. “It’s a five-year bill, and we’re in its ninth year.”
The dispute centers on just how much flexibility states will have, with the GOP proposing to end many federal mandates, while maintaining the annual testing that is at the core of the law.
“The differences have boiled down between the Democrats and Republicans in the Senate to accountability,” Alexander said. “What I would call them is whether you want a national school board or not. Whether you want a federal definition, a Washington definition of a teacher evaluation system, whether you want a Washington definition of a growth model, whether you want a Washington definition of an achievement gap.
“I think all of those are good ideas, but Georgia, Illinois and Tennessee ought to come up with their own definitions,” he said, flanked by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).
Isakson, who helped write the original law while a House Member, said it has worked, but he said the standards requiring yearly improvement are no longer appropriate because now most schools are going to be labeled as failing.
Isakson and Alexander said requirements for annual testing will remain and be improved, but the enforcement will fall to states and school boards.
“Transparency is the biggest hammer of all,” Isakson said.
“It’s better for the states and local school districts to take up the hammer, and the report cards that caused the improvement are still intact,” Alexander said.
Enzi complained in a hallway interview Wednesday that the two sides had reached agreement on how to deal with the biggest problems with the law, but are bogged down on details.
“What we did was first solve the big problems, and I think had agreement on that,” he said. But Enzi said Democrats want to try for a more comprehensive rewrite, which he does not support.
“In my opinion, comprehensive just doesn’t work. If you do a big bill, then there’s some reason for everybody to vote against it, and it makes it very difficult to get done,” Enzi said.
Enzi noted that he is still sitting down with Harkin — including talks on Wednesday and today — to try and get a deal.
“I am still an optimist. ... I’m working on it, and he’s working on it,” Enzi said.
Harkin issued a hopeful statement Wednesday.
“We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress,” he said. “In my view, we have agreement on all but a few issues for a comprehensive reauthorization. I remain hopeful that Senator Enzi and I can resolve these and present a comprehensive bill to our fellow committee members. A piecemeal approach will not provide our nation’s children, teachers, principals and schools with the reform they need.”
More broadly, Democrats acknowledge that legislating on anything this year has been hard. They are skeptical of whether Republicans are willing to give President Barack Obama a legislative victory on anything significant before the 2012 elections, noting how few bills of any stripe have reached his desk this year.
“We’re operating in a broader environment — aside from Harkin and Enzi — that is extremely partisan,” one aide lamented.
The aide said that there is general agreement that the No Child Left Behind law, the brainchild of former President George W. Bush, was a federal overreach in several areas — but on the other hand, kicking everything to the states goes too far.
“Harkin is very committed to right-sizing the role of the federal government,” the aide said, but, “Education is a national priority with national consequences.”
Some of the GOP proposals outlined Wednesday, which include expanding charter schools and consolidating numerous education programs, are in line with Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s own proposals, Republicans said.