This could be the most momentous week in federal education policy in the thirteen years since No Child Left Behind (NCLB) became law. The fact that the U.S. Senate is scheduled to take up a major rewrite of NCLB is historic in and of it itself. No new version or reauthorization of NCLB has made it through committee to action by the entire membership of the Senate in over a decade. And last week, the House Republican leadership announced that its version of NCLB--the Student Success Act--would also be brought up for a vote.
Two houses with reauthorizations in the same week--that is worth a few leftover Fourth of July fireworks. And we'll see how many fireworks will actually occur on either floor.
Watch for different dynamics. In the Senate, the Republican education committee chair Lamar Alexander has attempted to negotiate a bipartisan compromise with his Democratic counterpart, Patty Murray. The two staved off most divisive amendments in the education committee markup to emerge with a unanimous vote. But the more contentious amendments were delayed until the full Senate considers what could be a 3-5 day process. (Bet on less time since the Senate calendar is packed with other must-do legislation such as renewing the Highway Trust Fund and even possible debate if an Iran nuclear deal is reached.)
For Democrats--particularly those interested in accountability that requires state intervention if student subgroups lag behind--the magic number of votes they seek is over forty. Even a losing amendment with more than forty votes signals to Senate leadership that it won't have the sixty votes necessary to break a filibuster by frustrated accountability advocates. Only in the Senate can one side still win even with less than a majority.
This is not the case in the House where the 435 voting members operate under a civilian version of martial law; the party that controls the majority also controls the schedule and the length of debate. The Senate could easily take three days, but don't look for more than three hours in the House. Nor has bipartisan negotiation characterized House actions. Republicans passed the Student Success Act out of committee only with Republican votes. Any negotiations have been among different factions of Republicans, many of whom felt even the committee version retained too much federal control.
You may recall that this bill was actually on the House floor several months ago at the same time as the controversial U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funding bill. Denied passage by his own party, House Speaker John Boehner had to negotiate with Democrats to gain enough votes to pass the vital DHS spending measure. But his bipartisan tactics violated the "Hastert rule" (named after Boehner's predecessor, Speaker Dennis Hastert) of not bringing a bill to the House floor unless a majority of Republicans will vote for it.
Dancing with Democrats once in an afternoon was risky; doing it a second time in 12 hours could have brought down Boehner as speaker. So when conservative groups began stirring up discontent over the Student Success Act, it was pulled from the calendar and banished from the House floor until agreement was reached to regain Republican votes. Presumably it will pass this week, but don't look for many, if any, Democratic votes.
And House Speaker Boehner must have mixed emotions about what is in the Student Success Act and how hard he pushes for a final reauthorization.
Quick political trivia question: Who is the only House Education Committee chairman to go on to be Speaker in at least seventy years?
Answer: John Boehner. And he was a key player and architect in the passage of NCLB in 2001; so much so that President George W. Bush joined by the bipartisan congressional leadership trooped out to a high school in Boehner's Ohio congressional district to sign the legislation.
In 2001, NCLB--with its strong emphasis on standards-based accountability--was a slam dunk on both the substance and the politics. Today, NCLB ranks with Takata air bags for all-time brand toxicity. Boehner has an extremely difficult balancing act ahead in moving the legislation to become a workable reauthorization while not alienating his base.
I don't see the next week as being that difficult for Republican leadership. They simply have to pass some sort of a bill that enables going to conference with the Senate to reconcile the different versions of the education policy. The real test for Boehner's team is what comes out of a conference and whether the House Republicans will accept some of the Senate provisions, or whether enough provisions will be left in the Senate bill to get a favorable vote from Senators.
And when does the Obama administration weigh in with a veto threat on the final bill if the administration does not get what it wants?
There are many more legislative maneuvers to come. But it is certainly historic that both bills may be taken up and voted on this week, and it is well worth watching for confirmation of the inevitable changes coming to federal education policy.