Education Makes a Political Comeback in Washington

Courtney Williams's picture
Friday, October 21, 2011

After years on the political back burner, education is making a comeback in Washington, driven in large part by Democrats.

President Barack Obama has made saving teachers’ jobs a key part of his effort to sell his $447 billion jobs package as he travels the country. Senate Democrats have made dramatic pleas to help schools with budget woes, and in a last-ditch effort to get at least part of the president’s plan passed, a vote is expected soon on a section of the plan designed to save the jobs of teachers and first responders.

Separately, a Senate committee was to meet Wednesday to debate and amend the education law known as No Child Left Behind, one of the most significant efforts in the Senate to update the law since it was passed in 2002. Signaling some rare bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., the top senators from their respective parties on education, announced agreement on the bill Monday.

But that agreement didn’t satisfy the Obama administration, which voiced concern that the bill doesn’t include a requirement that states and local districts develop plans for evaluating teachers and principals.

Last month, Obama announced he was frustrated that Congress hadn’t fixed No Child Left Behind, despite widespread agreement that the 2002 law had flaws. He said he would allow states that met certain conditions to get around some of the provisions of the law. At least 39 states, in addition to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have told the Education Department they intend to seek a waiver.

Republicans have scoffed at many of the Democrats’ efforts. On Tuesday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell likened the president’s jobs plan to "bailouts" that perpetuate economic problems, not solve them. He said the "American people didn’t send us here to kick our problems down the road, and they certainly didn’t send us here to repeat the same mistakes over and over again — and then stick them and their children with the tab."

As for changes to No Child Left Behind, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former education secretary, said Monday that while he wasn’t completely happy with the Harkin-Enzi bill, he planned to support passing it out of committee because if Congress didn’t act, Education Secretary Arne Duncan would become a "waiver-granting czar" under Obama’s plan.


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