Administrator Magazine: Op Ed/Opinion
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money for education

Alexander Russo on the New Congress

Are the days of big money for education already behind us?

Over the first two years of the Obama administration, Congress sent roughly $100 billion in new money to states for education reform, plus another $10 billion to save teachers' jobs. Of course, not all of it reached schools, and most states didn't win Race to the Top funding; but still, not a bad showing, money-wise.

Looking ahead at the new Congress, however, it seems pretty clear that the next two years are going to be nothing like the last, financially speaking. Oh, well. It was a good run while it lasted. What remains unclear is whether there will be any movement on NCLB.

The Duncan team has been making a big push on renewing NCLB, arguing that education remains a nonpartisan issue and that the current version of the law is overly punitive and its rating system (AYP) obsolete.

On the surface, it would seem like the White House would have no problem winning support for their ideas. Duncan's even gotten some recent help from Republicans like Jeb Bush, who appeared with Duncan at a December event and agreed that there was lots of common ground.

Much has been made lately of Rep. John Boehner's interest in education issues, but I'm not buying it. Yes, the incoming majority leader of the House headed the education committee for a time and was there when NCLB was signed into law, but he's never struck me as someone who's particularly into education issues. They're not his passion, the way, say, partisan politics are. Boehner's being majority leader and working with the Republican National Committee to unseat Obama in 2012 makes it a lot less likely that he's going to be interested in making a big push on education. Boehner and the rest of the Republican leadership are under pressure from their right to make government smaller.

It's also somewhat unclear where NCLB sits on Chairman John Kline's priority list. Under previous Republican leaders, the House education committee has sometimes focused more on competitiveness and jobs rather than school reform—an approach Kline (R-MN) seems to be taking so far. He was quoted in a recent AP article saying that "the states have got to face their own issues" when it comes to funding and improvement. "Washington does not have the money." But he's also got Bush-era education types like Margaret Spellings warning against "gutting" NCLB.

Over on the Senate side, no one really knows what interest Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) has in pushing a revamped NCLB through the Senate, and whether he and his staff have the chops to pull it off. Harkin's been notably silent on the issue, even though he is the top Democrat on two key committees—the Senate education committee and the appropriations subcommittee that governs education spending. And he's best known for his work on special education (idea), not on NCLB.

One possible solution is that the White House will cut a deal with the Republican leaders, just like they did on the tax cut extension in December. It's a move that would further upset progressives who voted for Obama but now complain about his overly centrist, pragmatic ways.

It might be something district and state administrators could live with, though. Such a quick and dirty mini-reauthorization would likely revamp the accountability sections of the law (sections 1111 and 1116, for those of you who like statutory language) and the teacher effectiveness provisions. The new version of AYP would include subgroups and proficient rates still, but add growth measures. The key will be getting something done by the end of the summer at the latest—before campaign politics are top of the agenda. (Or perhaps an even better option for administrators—the White House will be persuaded to start issuing waivers that education groups want.)

One way or the other, the annual spending legislation has to get done. The budget deal made after the midterm elections provides flat funding for most education programs. For RTTT, the Obama administration originally asked for $1.35 billion but as of press time seemed likely to get only $500 million of that.

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