What Does "Where's Waldo" Have in Common With the Nation's Main Education Law?

03/30/2015 01:04 pm ET | Updated May 30, 2015

When my children were much younger, I loved playing "Where's Waldo" with them, trying to find the character in the distinctive hat amidst a confusing mass of other figures. They have grown, and now I play "Where's ESEA?"

This week marks what probably will be a three-week hiatus for seeing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act's (ESEA) red-and-white striped hat. Why three weeks? Because both houses of the Congress are in session this week and then go home for two weeks.

While the Congress is in session, the only likely action on ESEA reauthorization will be behind the scenes. In the Senate, this means continuing negotiations between the staffs of Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and ranking member Patty Murray (D-WA). In their one-paragraph press release two weeks ago, the two announced they were looking to an April 13 date for "mark-up," meaning bring a bill to the full HELP Committee to amend, approve, and send to the full Senate floor. At least the Senate is engaging in negotiations between the two parties.

In the House, any behind-the-scenes activity involves negotiations within only one party. ESEA's hat was briefly seen on the full House floor a few weeks ago and then vanished amidst Republican conflicts. Titled the "Student Success Act," the House's bill to reauthorize ESEA had passed from the House Education and the Workforce Committee on a strictly party-line vote. No negotiations preceded its introduction or committee mark-up. To pass on the House floor required an almost unanimous Republican vote since few, if any, Democrats felt any involvement in the legislation.

While the majority party is often able to roll over the minority party, this was not to be for this ESEA version, which fell victim to the connected twin Ts of "timing" and "Tea Party." Bad timing because the bill was on the floor on the same day as the tumultuous U.S. Department of Homeland Security funding measure. And it is never a good day for a House speaker when he must throw over a large part of his party and go seek the votes for passage from the other party.

Strike one against the House bill: a bunch of Republican members seething at their own leadership. Then strike two came as letters from the Club of Growth and Heritage Foundation challenged the conservative credentials of the bill. To many ESEA followers, a bill eliminating several categorical grant programs, greatly restricting the traditional federal role in education, pushed through with no Democratic participation, and already earning a veto threat from the White House seemed to have ample conservative chops. But combine Republican internecine conflict with objections from two pillars of the Tea Party conservatives and the Speaker pulled the bill from the floor.

So Waldo's hat now is squashed somewhere in the Speaker's desk drawer. Whether--and when--it appears is unknown. Since a House speaker is nominated and elected by their party membership, he or she cannot make too many end runs around their party base. And, unlike the Homeland Security flap where the Speaker was able to pick up Democratic votes to offset the opposing Republican ones, no similar option exists for this bill.

So don't look for too many ESEA hat sightings for several weeks. The Senate staffs continue negotiating quietly. The House Republicans--trying to convince each other that the bill has conservative credentials--may be negotiating with themselves. And where might the first significant sighting occur? Look closely for the distinctive red and white striping beginning the week of April 13--provided the Senate negotiations actually result in full committee action.