After months of delay, Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, is expected to release his blueprint for education reform on Tuesday, following the White House, Senate Republicans and the House GOP, in laying his cards on the table in the debate over what should replace the decade-old No Child Left Behind law.
Mr. Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, originally promised a bill in the spring. He pushed back his deadline multiple times, much to the chagrin of the Obama administration. The White House has frequently chastised Congress for its inability to reach compromise on education policy, an issue that has traditionally brought the two parties together.
Details of Mr. Harkin's proposal remain under wraps, but the committee is scheduled to unveil the full bill Tuesday afternoon.
Mr. Harkin's counterpart, ranking HELP Committee Republican Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican, has been intimately involved in crafting the reform plan, an aide to Mr. Enzi said. The intense closed-door negotiations have been largely responsible for the delay, but education specialists think Mr. Harkin and Mr. Enzi now have a golden opportunity to break through partisan gridlock and reach a high-profile compromise.
"The politics of this situation are pretty clear. People want to see Congress working together on something," said former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, who now heads the Alliance for Excellent Education, a D.C.-based advocacy group.
"This is a chance, whether you're liberal or conservative, this is a chance for all of us to have a victory here at home," Mr. Wise said.
Agreement between Mr. Harkin and Mr. Enzi, however, is only the first step in what will surely be a long, arduous process.
House Republicans are moving forward with their own education policy overhaul, a five-part package that focuses on freeing states and school districts from many mandates on how they spend federal money, promoting more charter schools and changing the definition of "effective teachers," offering more leeway on the type of instructors schools can put in the classroom.
The House Committee on Education and the Workforce has passed three of the five bills over loud objections from Democrats. The exception was the charter school bill, which passed the full House with strong bipartisan support last month.
There is also a competing proposal in the Senate. Last month, a quartet of Republican senators, led by Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, released their own plan, which includes the elimination of the "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) system under NCLB. The much-maligned system calls for 100 percent of students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014, a goal widely viewed as unattainable. The federal Education Department has estimated that more than 80 percent of districts will be labeled "failing" this year under AYP.
The Republican measures would also authorize the creation of a "Teacher Incentive Fund" to reward the best classroom leaders, combine duplicative federal education programs and, much like the bill that passed the House, support expansion of charter schools by offering startup money.
While a comprehensive bill that can pass both the House and Senate is still a long way away, Mr. Wise said the recent flurry of activity is largely because of the White House's decision to bypass Congress entirely and rewrite education policy itself. Last month, President Obama announced that the Education Department would begin granting waivers from NCLB to states that implemented their own detailed reform plans. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the move, which he dubbed "Plan B," was necessary because of the "dysfunctional" state of Congress.
Under the waiver proposal, states can escape from under NCLB if: They already have in place college- and career-ready standards; develop "differentiated recognition" systems, which highlight the highest- and lowest-performing schools; implement turnaround programs for the worst districts; and set up detailed plans to measure the effectiveness of teachers and principals.
Dozens of states plan to apply for waivers, but Mr. Duncan has said he doesn't want Congress to use the proposal as an excuse to stop working. The White House is expected to move forward with its plan regardless of what happens on Capitol Hill — at least for now.
"My sense is that the administration is going forward until they see something positive happening ... if the administration takes the waiver pressure off, then I can guarantee we'll see things grind to a halt again," Mr. Wise said.
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