Education debate is next test for political civility

President Obama and Republican leaders are moving toward a possible compromise on education reform, spurred by widespread dissatisfaction with the George W. Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act.

The 9-year-old act imposes controversial testing requirements to govern how much federal aid flows to a school district.

Republicans object to the act’s prominent federal role. Democrats say the testing overloads the school day and is an unfair way to judge teachers, one of the party’s principal interest groups. Both sides are alarmed at reviews that showed 30% of schools making unsatisfactory progress last year, a figure that could jump to 80% this year under the act’s criteria.

Key Republicans say they are willing to talk. “The conversations that we’ve had so far -- Republican and Democrat, House and Senate -- have been very congenial and productive,” said Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the senior Republican on the Senate committee that deals with education.

But discarding a controversial law is the easy part. Finding a solution that can stand up to the extremes on both left and right will be an early test of bipartisanship, and of Obama’s well-advertised tack to the political center.


The positions of both sides are long-held. On the left, many Democrats and teachers think schools, especially those without strong local tax support, need more federal money. They support standards of achievement but don’t want teachers judged solely by student tests. Conservatives generally like tough standards but think state and local governments should have more responsibility. Most of all, they want to give parents vouchers for public money that could be applied to private school tuition, which they say would promote competition among the public schools.

Adherents of the “tea party” movement want to abolish the Department of Education altogether.

The fault lines in the education debate quickly became apparent last month. The day after the president outlined his education priorities in his State of the Union address, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) unveiled legislation to renew a school voucher program in the District of Columbia.

“If we’re serious about bipartisan education reform, then this bill should be our starting point,” Boehner said.

Obama said he wanted to abolish No Child Left Behind and replace it with a system for reviewing schools that leaves more day-to-day decisions to states and school districts. He also urged “investment” in schools to keep the U.S. competitive with other countries -- which means federal spending.

Some reduction in the federal role is likely the key to a compromise. The possibility of funding more charter schools, which are run by groups outside school districts, is on the table, according to administration officials.

“I don’t want us to become the national school board,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former Education secretary and a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Alexander said consensus was possible.

Lawmakers on both sides want fairer evaluations for teachers and schools, as well as more latitude for the states to do what seems necessary on their home turf, said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate health and education panel. He hopes to offer a bill this spring.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has spent months in talks with lawmakers on the education committees, trying to figure out where all sides will budge.

Key Democrats and Republicans on the Senate committee said they think there are enough shared values to move forward. Several say no ground is more favorable than education for collaboration between the Democratic president and Republicans in Congress.

But that may not be enough, especially if presidential politics come into play. Some Democrats privately doubt the Republicans would let Obama score such a win, especially on a topic voters take as personally as education.

And with dozens of new conservative and tea-party-backed lawmakers in Congress, more ambitious proposals could put consensus out of reach. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has introduced legislation that would gut the Education Department.

Yet lawmakers from both parties recalled that controversial initiatives were excluded from the Bush law precisely because they would have derailed the bipartisan effort -- and say they could likely do so again.

“There’s wide recognition on both sides of the aisle that this law needs to be fixed,” said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), senior Democrat on the House education committee.