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ESEA in the Next Congress? A Few Notes of Hope, But Outlook Mostly Bleak

Published:  November 9, 2010
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It may take awhile to feel the full effect of the mid-term Congressional elections, but that didn’t stop several experts at an education forum in Washington, D.C. today from offering a bleak outlook on the chances for changes to one key education law: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“The odds are 50 to 1” that ESEA is reauthorized during the next Congressional session, said Andrew P. Kelly, research fellow in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where the forum was held. His director, Rick Hess, opted for 35 to 1. 

Joel Packer, formerly director of education policy and practice at the National Education Association and now principal at the Raben Group, a lobbying and educational consulting firm, didn’t think the chances were quite that bad. His take: 5 to 1.

The three Congressional staff members who were on the panel took a more hopeful view – as might be expected from people who wouldn’t want to play their boss’s hand in public. “We’re quite optimistic,” said Bethany Little, chief education counsel for the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which is chaired by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA). “It was divided government” when ESEA was reauthorized in 2001, Little said. “And it’s divided government now.”

Lindsay Hunsicker, senior education policy advisor for Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY.), the ranking Republican on the HELP committee, said that the administration’s Blueprint for Reform “is still worthy of our consideration.”

The third staffer Amy Jones, who specializes in education issues for Rep. John Kline (R-Minn), is likely to be tapped as the new chair of the House Education and Labor Committee. With Kline’s role not yet official, Jones declined to tip her hand.

ESEA, known to non-policy wonks as No Child Left Behind, has been due for reauthorization since 2007. Here at Early Ed Watch, we’ve been following the issue closely (and as part of the Early Education Initiative, helped to draft a consensus letter from 15 organizations advocating for changes related to early education up through third grade).  A year ago, there were high hopes among many in the Obama Administration that Congress would take up the challenge of revamping it. But though several hearings have been held, no bill has emerged from either the House or Senate side, and by the summer, most policymakers had decided to hold off on predicting progress until the outcome of November’s elections.

We now know that outcome: Come January, the House will be under Republican control, which means it would be up to Rep. Kline, the probable chair of the Education and Labor Committee, to introduce a bill on the House side. So far, he has been vocal about the importance of local control on education issues and has come out in favor of increasing funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, according to Ed Week’s Politics K-12 blog.

[For more blog-worthy prognostication on ESEA, see also EduFlak, who suggests that one stumbling block this summer was not Democrat-Republican stalemate but the lack of movement on the Senate side. Also check out the recent post by Andrew Kelly of AEI, who notes in a guest-blog for Rick Hess Straight Up, that the small number of moderates left in the House could pose a problem.]

And what about early education and its chances of more inclusion in ESEA – or its chances of even being on the radar screen in Congress generally? At the AEI event today, education programs that reach students before kindergarten weren’t on the agenda and elementary schools received no mention. (Elementary schools are, however, assumed to be part of the K-12 turnaround strategies that got some airtime.)

During the Q-and-A, I asked how the new Congress would treat Head Start. “Senator Harkin will look for every opportunity to support early childhood education,” Little said. “It’s going to remain a high priority for him moving forward.”

Hunsicker, Sen. Enzi’s education advisor, had a positive response as well: “We’re excited about the proposals [for Head Start reform] that the federal government has put forward,” she said, adding that “there is a lot the administration still has to do.”

For more posts on ESEA and early learning, see our page devoted to ESEA coverage.


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