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DIVIDED WE STALL?: Prospects for Education Reform Unclear After Republicans Take Control in the House of Representatives, Gain Ground in Senate

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“Both parties desperately needed to be perceived as working together,” Wise said. “And this is one area where they can do it.”

As the smoke clears from an election day battle that left Democrats bruised and beaten, it is evident that Republicans will pick up at least sixty seats—and possibly as many as sixty-five—to claim control of the U.S. House of Representatives. In the U.S. Senate, Republicans gained six seats, but fell short of capturing the majority.1 What remains unclear is whether a divided Congress—a Republican-controlled House and a Democrat-controlled Senate—can work with President Obama to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind.

Education reformers who are “bullish” on education reform in 2011 point out that in 2002—the last time ESEA was reauthorized—control of Congress was similarly split, with Democrats narrowly controlling the Senate and Republicans controlling the House. At the same time, there was a president in the White House, George W. Bush, who was strongly pushing for education reform. That appears to be the case again this time with President Obama.

“This is a top, top priority for the president,” Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, told the Washington Post. “This is and has been a bipartisan issue. We think it transcends ideology.”

In the November 3 articleWashington Post Staff Writer Nick Anderson writes that education is one major domestic issue that “seems ripe for deal making” if President Obama is seeking common ground with Republicans in the next Congress. Anderson notes that key Republican lawmakers “appear receptive” to the president’s ideas on education reform because they include teacher performance pay, charter schools, and other innovations that Republicans could support.

Some political observers believe that the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives could make education reform more likely given the polarization around other issues and the pressure to accomplish something prior to the next elections. As evidence of how divided government can encourage compromise, they point to the role that welfare reform played after Republicans took control of the House after the 1994 elections. Indeed, the current political environment—historic Republican gains in the House and a highly partisan atmosphere—looks remarkably similar to 1994. Back then, most thought nothing would get done and, in fact, the federal government was actually shut down on two different occasions. However, President Clinton was able to come to an agreement on welfare reform with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Republican majority in Congress.

During a November 4 webinar on the impact of the mid-term elections on education reform efforts, Alliance for Excellent Education President Bob Wise, who was a sitting member of Congress in 1994, said that education reform could be the welfare reform of 2011. “Both parties desperately needed to be perceived as working together,” Wise said. “And this is one area where they can do it.”

Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report, who also appeared on the November 4 webinar panel, agreed with Wise. “Republicans are going to want some successes,” he said. “They’re going to understand that if they at least appear to be doing something—making peoples’ lives better—it will help how they’re evaluated. The White House will absolutely need successes … so I think that there’s at least some hope that an area like education … there’s a general sense that maybe this is an area in which we can make progress.”

Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and member of the House Education and Labor Committee, also senses that education reform could be Obama’s welfare reform, but he does not necessarily see that connection as a positive development. “That’s my sense and also my concern, to be quite honest,” Grijalva told a daily TV/Radio program, Democracy Now!, as reported by the Huffington Post. “We had an opportunity to reauthorize elementary and secondary education. We didn’t do that. Now we go back to a session in which the Republicans are going to control the Education and Labor Committee. I see [education] as a place where people are going to look for a common agenda between Republicans and the White House, but I also see it, as it could be for public education, a very, very slippery slope. We have to be very cautious and very protective of public education as one of the agenda items.”

Those less positive about the prospects of education reform in 2011 point out that welfare reform was not enacted until August of 1996—nearly two years after Republicans took control of the House of Representatives. Even those bullish on education reform agree that it cannot wait that long. Wise said that ESEA reauthorization “had to be done in 2011 and probably before the August recess” because of the looming presidential election. If ESEA is not reauthorized in 2011, Wise thought that it could take several more years.

Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, also believes that the presidential election could negatively impact ESEA reauthorization. As the Washington Post reports, “Jennings [thinks] we’re headed for deadlock for a couple years” and he predicts the Republicans’ drive to unseat Obama in 2012 will trump all else when Republican lawmakers decide whether to compromise with the president. “They don’t want to give him any victories on anything,” Jennings told the Post. “I can’t see them wanting to give him a victory on education.”

Another faction that could play a role is the Tea Party. After seeing some of their more moderate colleagues knocked off in primary contests earlier this year, incumbent Republicans in the House could feel pressure to move more to the right and compromise with the president less in order to prevent primary challenges from Tea Partiers in 2012.

The wildcard in this legislative poker game could be Representative John Boehner (R-OH), the presumed House Speaker-to-be. In theNovember 4 installment of his “School of Thought” education column for Time.comAndrew J. Rotherham, cofounder and partner at Bellwether Education Partners, calls Boehner a “seasoned negotiator” who was one of the “Big Four,” along with Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH)former Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), and Representative George Miller (D-CA), who helped craft what became the No Child Left Behind Act the last time ESEA was reauthorized. At the same time however, Rotherham notes that Boehner’s views about education “matter less than the question of what he can accomplish given the fractious caucus he will be leading.”

Rotherham points out that many of the record class of eighty-four newly elected Republican members of Congress are set on cutting spending—in fact, Republicans’ A Pledge to America, which outlines their priorities for 2011, includes $100 billion in spending cuts—which, he says, means that big infusions of cash will not be available to “help grease the wheels for political deals around education reform.”

However, as the Washington Post article points out, A Pledge to America omitted any mention of the word education. “As a result,” it reads, “the rhetorical temperature on education is cooler than on taxes, spending, health care, energy, and other topics on which emboldened Republicans are sure to confront the president.”

Writing for Politico in another day-after-Election-Day article, Reporter Kendra Marr writes that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan“believes that education reform can be the great bipartisan issue, uniting the two feuding parties.” She quotes Duncan who says, “Am I hopeful? Absolutely. Am I optimistic? Yes. Do I think it’s the right thing to do for children, for the country? Absolutely.”

During his post-election press conference on November 3, President Obama echoed that sentiment. “I think everybody in this country thinks that we’ve got to make sure our kids are equipped in terms of their education, their science background, their math backgrounds, to compete in this new global economy,” he said. “And that’s going to be an area where I think there’s potential common ground.”

1 Democrats will control fifty-three seats in the U.S. Senate, which includes two Independent senators who are aligned with Democrats. Republicans will control forty-seven seats.

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