Grim tea leaves for reform-minded dems
The NCLB saga continues

Fredler Brave

High school students in a Miami classroom.

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  • trying to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary #Edcuation Act seems to be going #nowhere fast

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  • Reform dems need to bridge the gap between their view on involving the #feds in edcuation, and the tea-party republicans

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  • A coalition of such R's and Democratic reformers is possible..... in #theory

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This week's developments have been notable-- less because the reauth effort is likely to go anywhere, and more because they offer a clarifying look at where things stand. The more the Ed Trust and Center for American Progress view mandates as the measure of "reforminess," the more they ensure that they will not find common cause with even sympathetic Republicans. Whereas Ed Trust was central to the NCLB negotiations a decade ago, today they're standing outside the emerging consensus that spans from Harkin-Enzi on the center-left, to Alexander-Burr on the center-right, to the House Republican caucus (and the NEA!) on the right.

"Reform-minded Dems in Washington may well find themselves on the outside looking in." -- Frederick M. Hess

The concern on the right, for many who embrace charters, test-based accountability, and overhauling teacher tenure, evaluation, and pay, is not, as Senator Alexander ably explained, these policies, but the hubris of those who think they can be effectively prescribed or policed from Washington. NCLB illustrated how self-proclaimed "reformers" can drive past the bounds of common sense and a well-ordered federal role. One result, which should not surprise, is that Republicans seeking to bring the feds back in line are finding much common ground with the unions.

State-level action this year, from Indiana to Wisconsin to Ohio, has shown that tea party-inspired Republicans are eager to battle teacher unions, promote accountability, and advance school choice. A coalition of such R's and Democratic reformers is entirely possible in theory, but it's foundering on their very different orientations towards federal action. The administration and the reform Dems need to find a way to bridge this divide. Otherwise, after years of being at the white hot center of the education debate, reform-minded Dems in Washington may well find themselves on the outside looking in.

Finding sixty votes for some version of Harkin-Enzi in the Senate will prove enormously difficult, if not impossible. Most of the Senate Republicans are going to resist anything that includes much in the way of categoricals, HQT, and mandated improvement strategies; Ed Trust Dems will insist on those things; and NEA Dems are going to want more money and less accountability. How you assemble sixty votes there is tough to see. And, even if you do, it's hard to see how one reconciles whatever emerges with what House Republicans are hoping to do.

This all means that the odds of a reauth before the 2012 election may have edged up a few ticks from 1-in-100, but they haven't moved much more than that. The maneuvering and fighting are less important because they're likely to produce a new law, and more because they are backlighting the landscape, forging alliances, and fixing markers and default language for the next go-round, in 2013.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI

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