- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The big Republican gains in last week’s midterm elections could mean new funding problems for President George W. Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind Act education reform and a possible frontal attack on President Obama’s own “Race to the Top” school reform.

Staffers on House and Senate education committees expressed confidence Tuesday during a panel discussion that Mr. Bush’s plan, a reform wrapped in the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), would receive full funding even with the new House GOP majority and the expanded Senate Republican minority.

Bethany Little, chief education counsel for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said she was “optimistic” about the prospects for reauthorization of No Child Left Behind in the next Congress.

“This process has been bipartisan in the past. … It’s the only way it can be,” she said.

Ms. Little, who advises Democratic committee Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, also predicted the reauthorization process would begin “early in the next Congress.”

But private-education policy experts on a panel sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute were less optimistic, saying the more likely scenario is that Congress will fund only selected parts on the legislation, focused primarily on the act’s Title I, the flagship aid program for disadvantaged students.

Joel Parker, a former director at the National Education Association, said as many as 10 of the 80 new GOP House members will be on the chamber’s Education and Labor Committee, which will result in gridlock because many will want to express the voter dissatisfaction with spending that got them elected.

“Look at what the freshman Republicans ran on,” he said. “It wasn’t bipartisan cooperation or robust federal role in education. It was: ‘Let’s abolish the Education Department.’ “

The Obama administration’s request for $1.35 billion in the fiscal 2011 budget for the Race to the Top, designed to foster competition in the states over improved school practices, could also face tough scrutiny.

Frederick Hess, a resident AEI scholar, said the Race to the Top program appears in peril, noting Mr. Obama didn’t seek input from outside the administration and the competitive grant process was done in a “slipshod” way.

House Republican aides also think the Race to the Top program faces a tough reauthorization fight with GOP members, in part because the grants were awarded only in states with heavy representation by powerful teachers unions.

Critics of ESEA have focused on the fact that federal funding has continued to increase without significant improvements in K-12 achievement scores and that educators have become too concerned about helping students pass assessment tests — created on the state level — to receive federal funding.

Funding related in the legislation went from $17.4 billion in 2001 to $24.4 billion in 2007.

The Obama administration released a reauthorization blueprint last spring that adds incentives for states that adopt academic standards that prepare students for college and jobs.

The administration is asking for $50.7 billion in discretionary appropriations for the Education Department, a $4.5 billion increase over comparable 2010 spending levels.

Five-term Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican, is in line to take over as chairman of the House panel, and has already expressed his concerns about No Child Left Behind. Even weeks before the midterm elections, he said the legislation was a large “intrusion” on education and that dissatisfaction with the reform extends from Congress to schoolhouses across the country.

Complicating the politics of education policy in the new Congress is the fact that presumptive new House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, served on the Education and Labor Committee and helped garner bipartisan support for the measure after President Bush first proposed it.

Congressional aides have downplayed that potential conflict this week, saying Mr. Boehner has continued to call for further consolidating of federal education programs and more flexibility for school districts in spending federal money under No Child Left Behind.

“Rep. Kline and [Minority Leader] Boehner are good friends who share a commitment to a smaller, more accountable federal government,” said one House GOP education staffer. “When it comes to education reform, they both agree that parents and local educators know our children better than any bureaucrat in Washington.”

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