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Breaking the Congressional Logjam on Education

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Daily, members of Congress orate on the need for American schools to improve. Yet today, the legislation authorizing every major federal program to assist education has expired or will soon lapse due to the lack of action by Congress. The only way these programs continue temporally is under a Congressional procedure called an automatic extension.

How has this sorry state of affairs come about?

For the last four years, Republicans have taken pains to avoid giving President Obama any legislative victories and have been unwilling to compromise on their philosophy of reducing the federal role in education. Democrats, when they controlled both houses of Congress in 2009-2010, were busy passing economic and health legislation, and also could not agree among themselves on how best to change the most controversial federal law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

These and other reasons have led to a congressional mess with national education policy, which in turn has allowed the Obama administration to use executive authority to put in place its own priorities with little congressional input. So much for people elected to Congress shaping -- or even influencing -- national policy!

I was quoted harshly criticizing Congress for failing to act in an article by Alyson Klein in the Education Week of January 16, 2013. When I worked in Congress, I did not like it when people criticized without offering solutions. So, this is my advice on how Congress can get out of this mess.

The No Child Left Behind Act is holding everything else up. So, that law (which is a set of changes adopted in 2002 to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) should be dealt with first, especially since neither Republican nor Democratic members of Congress like the free hand their inaction has given the Obama administration. The U.S. Secretary of Education has used legislative authority to grant 33 states and the District of Columbia waivers from the rigid provisions of NCLB. In other words, he is rewriting the law state by state.

To get a revision of that law through Congress, House and Senate Democrats and Republicans and the Obama administration should agree to follow an approach of "two bills and a tight schedule."

This agreement would consist of the following. An initial bill should be limited to addressing the accountability provisions of NCLB (required student testing, labeling of schools, and required actions for schools not meeting targets). For more than five years, Congress has debated how to make changes in this area, and should move to votes. Let the chips fall where they will.

The second bill ought to include other issues dealing with elementary and secondary education, except for programs for children with disabilities. The Republicans will probably want to offer a national program of vouchers for aid to private schools. The Democrats will probably want a school construction program. The Obama administration will want to offer its proposals dealing with the schools and gun control, in particular, money for school guards and counseling for disturbed students.

If the issues in the second proposed bill were included in the first bill, it would bog the legislative down through extended congressional debate, and maybe a threat of a presidential veto. So, those issues ought to be dealt with separately. The NCLB accountability issues are difficult enough for one piece of legislation without encumbering it with other hot button issues.

As an important component of this strategy, congressional leaders of both parties and the Obama administration should agree to adhere to a strict timeline. The first bill should be on the President's desk by July, and the second one by the end of the year.

As work is finishing on those bills, then other education legislation can start to move. The NCLB logjam means that measures are blocked from moving on helping students pay for post-secondary education, guaranteeing children with disabilities a public education, considering career education in a world emphasizing college for all, improving HeadStart, and reshaping federally funded research to improve education.

Many members of Congress understand that this logjam must be broken in order to jump start the usual process of lawmaking and give elected representatives a say in shaping national education policy. The Obama administration may be more reluctant to agree to this strategy since the absence of congressional legislation has given them a free hand to set policy -- most notably by establishing requirements for states seeking Secretarial waivers of NCLB provisions.

A final component is necessary to make this strategy work. Congressional leaders should agree that they will provide the Obama administration with additional funds for the Race to the Top program. That Administration initiative is their pride and joy, and 13 states are now revising their systems of education after receiving grants. Additional funds would let Obama continue working with new states that are willing to implement such requirements as revising teacher evaluation programs, a provision now required of any state wanting a NCLB waiver.

An interesting lesson about the need to engage in political horse trading to accomplish a greater good can be gleaned from Lincoln, a film vying for an Oscar as the year's best movie. Late last year, the U.S. Senate recessed to watch the film, and at the Golden Globes Award program, former President Bill Clinton appeared to describe the value of that movie. Politicians like the film because it is realistic in showing what President Lincoln had to do to get through Congress a constitutional amendment repealing slavery. President Lincoln, considered one of the best leaders the nation has ever had, promised federal jobs to lawmakers and used other questionable tactics to secure passage of the 13th Amendment.

It will not be necessary to go so far to break the congressional logjam on education, but it will require the same willingness to take strong action. Let's hope our leaders today have the same courage as those of a hundred and fifty years ago.