In 2008, Barack Obama campaigned on the promise that his administration would oversee the rewriting of the expired No Child Left Behind Act. But four years later, education experts and legislators don't see any end to the negotiations with and within Congress.
"The administration needs to figure out what they want," said Charles Barone, a drafter of the 2002 law who now serves as legislative director at Democrats for Education Reform. "They've been hedgy."
The sweeping No Child Left Behind Act, a Texas-grown product of the George W. Bush presidency, was roundly criticized as being too onerous and unrealistic in its expectations for student achievement: One hundred percent of students were supposed to perform at "proficient" levels on standardized tests by 2014. Even its creators acknowledge that the law, which expired 1,877 days ago in 2007, was never supposed to exist unmodified for as long as it has.
Yet reauthorization efforts are stalled, due to a combination of complicated incentives -- in part created by the Obama administration -- and the broader gridlock that has gripped Congress for the last two years.
In 2010, President Obama released a blueprint for reauthorization of the law. When Congress missed a fall 2011 deadline to pass a revised bill, the administration found a way around the legislative process: waivers. States could avoid No Child Left Behind's onerous annual targets for student performance if they agreed to implement components of the administration's education agenda, such as evaluating teachers in part based on their students' test scores.
So far, the administration has accepted waiver plans from 34 states and the District of Columbia. Seven more states have waiver plans under review.
The strategy has a flaw: The waivers are not permanent, and Obama's education legacy would likely prove more enduring if it too were enshrined in law. Yet education officials appear to prefer the waivers over a reauthorization bill with provisions they don't support.
In a Friday speech, Education Secretary Arne Duncan appeared indifferent about the prospects of reauthorization. "At the moment, it's unclear if there is a real commitment and consensus in Congress for reauthorizing [the education law]," he said in a speech to the Council of Chief State School Officers, according to prepared remarks. "I wish there was a clear commitment and consensus."
Duncan said that implementing the waivers will be a key part of his second-term agenda. "But whether reauthorization proceeds or not, state leadership on waivers and flexibility has been absolutely invaluable," he said. "Your work will endure -- and it will have a big impact on shaping any reauthorization bill that might emerge."
That willingness to stick to waivers might undermine Congress' ability to reauthorize the law, said Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), who chairs the House education committee.
"We need to get re-engagement from the White House," Kline told The Huffington Post, noting that with a waiver program, the administration can "change that at their whim." He added, "If they're going to be content to continue to unilaterally write education policy, it's hard to make the progress we want to see happen."
Last year, the Senate education committee signed off on a bill that would do away with No Child Left Behind's notorious annual goals. But Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said he would not ask party leadership to bring it to the floor until it was clear that the House had a sufficiently similar bill. The Senate measure was excoriated by both civil rights and business groups, who said it would alter the federal government's role in school accountability in a way that would harm students.
Meanwhile, Kline had started bipartisan talks with his committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. George Miller (Calif.), but hours after Kline released draft legislation, Miller issued a scathing statement condemning the two House measures as undermining disadvantaged students. The two bills passed through the House committee, but Senate Democrats were not interested.
Now, Harkin's committee will go back to the drawing board. In a statement to HuffPost, Harkin said that in the next Congress, his committee will try to reauthorize the education law "in a bipartisan effort that builds on the Committee’s 2011 work." He added, "While the administration's efforts to grant waivers is helpful for states operating under the tenets of NCLB, these fixes are temporary. It is my view that a reauthorization ... will provide states the guidance they need to improve K-12 education for all students."
A Senate Democratic aide said that Harkin would take into account lessons learned from the waivers when drafting the next bill: It would have to support the states that have already implemented the Obama administration's educational priorities while prodding those that haven't. Aside from that, very little is decided. The aide added that Harkin feels strongly that negotiations on the House side should be bipartisan and include Rep. Miller.
In another change to the senatorial calculus, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former U.S. education secretary, is taking over the committee's ranking Republican spot from Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.). Last year Alexander joined some other Republican senators in introducing their own bills, which eliminated the annual benchmarks but maintained public reporting requirements and required states to identify their lowest-performing schools.
A senior Republican aide familiar with Alexander's thinking said the senator might be even more reluctant to go along with Harkin than Enzi was, due to his views on the limits of the federal government. While the aide was hesitant to name Alexander's nonnegotiable priorities, he said the senator would not sign onto any bill that prohibits vouchers. "Other than that, there's a lot of room for conversation," he said.
While Kline plans to push his House bills -- with some potential minor adjustments -- in the next year, he's not sure whether he can reach agreement with the other chamber on a revised New Child Left Behind law.
"This is the same Senate that didn't pass a budget for three years," Kline said. "I don't know what their willingness is going to be to engage in this."