Once upon a time, education was a bipartisan issue, even in Washington.
When it came to America's schools -- a point of bombastic rhetoric on the campaign trail -- Democrats and Republicans have historically been willing to set aside their differences and hug it out. The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, a law that dramatically increased the federal government's reach into America's schools, illustrated this situation: Republicans, like President George W. Bush, Rep. John Boehner (Ohio) and Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), and Democrats, like Rep. George Miller (Calif.) and Sen. Ted Kennedy (Mass.), were equally enthusiastic cosponsors.
Over the last few years, even when signs of partisan rancor interfered, education held onto its unique status as an across-the-aisle, hand-shaking issue. Its position was bolstered especially as more and more Democratic politicians, once entirely swayed by teachers' unions on school policy, joined the "education reform movement," a group that is often at odds with labor on how to improve schools and whether to link teacher evaluations to student test scores. Even in the lead-up to the presidential election, the House of Representatives managed to pass a bipartisan charter school bill.
But the politics around the No Child Left Behind reauthorization bill unveiled by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) Tuesday and the rancorous fight over student loans have made one thing clear: Those days are over.
"The time for bipartisan deals around reauthorization has probably ended," said Justin Hamilton, who worked as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's press secretary until November. "After the midterm elections, the composition of the Congress grew increasingly more polarized, and it became almost impossible for the bipartisan group of folks in the middle trying to hammer something out to get a deal they could sell to their caucuses."
On Tuesday, Harkin unveiled the Strengthening America's Schools Act, a rewrite of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the law that became NCLB. All 11 Democrats on Harkin's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), signed on as cosponsors. The bill quickly garnered somewhat supportive statements from groups such as the American Federation of Teachers, the Center for American Progress and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
While the process started off as bipartisan, negotiations with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), now the ranking member on the HELP committee, ended a few weeks ago, sources say, when Harkin insisted on requiring annual, measurable performance goals for public schools. A senior Republican Senate aide called the bill a "mishmash of everybody's craziest ideas thrown together." The aide added that, "If this were to become law, this is when we look back and say, 'Oh, this is where the national school board started.'"
Now, Alexander is introducing his own NCLB rewrite, and he is expected to bring Republicans along with him. The Republican aide said he expects no Republicans on the HELP committee to support Harkin's bill, for which the committee has scheduled a markup next Tuesday.
One and a half years ago, though, Harkin's big NCLB bill had some bipartisan support from Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and two other Republicans, Alexander included, in the final committee vote. The bill would likely have come to the floor had it not been for Harkin's commitment to bipartisanship: He said that unless the House education committee could produce a bipartisan bill, he would not seek to bring NCLB to a Senate vote.
A HELP committee staffer said that this year is different, that Harkin's bill is clearly partisan, and he would bring it to the floor regardless of what happens on the House side. And the Republican aide agreed that bipartisanship is lacking: "There's no Enzi-Harkin process, there's no Kirk or Alexander on board -- it is clearly partisan. Republicans aren't going to spend time defending a Democratic bill ... You can't make this bill better unless you shred it and use it for compost."
This break from political history illustrates the broader issues plaguing a Congress that governs from crisis to crisis, from government shutdown threats to sequestration. Education, as the last bastion of bipartisanship in the federal government, is done.
Some might consider this to be a positive development. After all, the product of that earlier bipartisanship was NCLB, a sweeping bill that even its creators have called imperfect. Indeed, many criticize NCLB for using too rote a measure to grade schools and for relying on an overly punitive approach that inspires "teaching to the test." But the loss of bipartisanship means that, save President Barack Obama's executive orders, schools are stuck with this problematic solution enshrined as law for the foreseeable future.
From the administration's perspective, the issue is moot. When Duncan and Obama saw that Congress would not overhaul NCLB -- one of the president's campaign promises -- by fall 2011, they enabled states to apply for waivers from the law's most stringent components in exchange for agreeing to implement parts of the administration's education agenda.
While 37 states have had their waivers approved, others, such as Iowa and California, don't have waivers. The 13 states without waivers stand to lose federal money if they don't have nearly 100 percent of their schools proficient in reading and math by 2014 -- a goal Duncan has called "utopian." That potential loss of funding spurred Harkin to push a partisan rewrite now, the HELP staffer said.
The partisan squabbling has extended to higher education. Last year during the presidential campaign, the expiration of a 2007 law threatened to double interest rates on federally subsidized Stafford loans. President Barack Obama slow-jammed to the news on "Jimmy Fallon," and Mitt Romney supported extending the lower rates, forcing the Hill to arrive at a last-minute, if temporary, solution.
Now, as Obama renews the effort to maintain the lower rates, advocates say the chances of success have dwindled. On Friday, Obama urged college students to call their representatives to keep the rates down. But even as he spoke, GOP staffers tweeted that the engagement was only a ploy to divert attention from the administration's second-term scandals. In a TV appearance, Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.) said the speech was a distraction from Benghazi, and Boehner issued a statement calling the speech "misguided."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post stated incorrectly that the president slow-jammed to the news on "Jimmy Kimmel." Obama rocked that particular jam on "Jimmy Fallon."