Harkin-Enzi is in a Coma (But the Obama Waiver Plan is Still Alive)
The good news, or at least as good as it can be given the dismal conditions of federal education policy discussions, is that the plan for gutting the No Child Left Behind Act offered up by Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin and Republican Ranking Member Mike Enzi, won’t be up for full consideration until next year. Even that is unlikely. Considering that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his fellow Democrats will be struggling to keep control of the upper house, the likelihood of the Harkin-Enzi plan (or any reauthorization of No Child) coming up for a vote by the full body is slim to none.
None of this should be surprising. Looking to head off President Barack Obama’s almost equally as unappealing No Child waiver plan, Harkin finally got off the snide (and away from equally unproductive efforts to shut down the for-profit college sector) by putting together a gutting of No Child that was far more favorable to education traditionalists (and their efforts to preserve the status quo) than to continuing systemic reform. Not only did the proposal gut Adequate Yearly Progress — the most-successful element of the law that has spurred school reform efforts — it didn’t even move the ball on improving teacher quality, overhaul how teachers are trained by the nation’s woeful university schools of education, or expand school choice in any meaningful way. The initial plan to require states to evaluate teachers using student performance data was excised from Harkin-Enzi as soon as the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, and Senate Republicans made their opposition known; after all, without the support of the latter, Harkin-Enzi wouldn’t have made it to paper. Even with some of the small improvements made during the markup of the bill, Harkin-Enzi was a disservice to Parent Power efforts, to the futures of young black, white, Latino, and Asian men (who make up three out of every five children who ultimately drop out), and, ultimately, isn’t worth the paper upon which it is written.
But Harkin-Enzi could only come to pass if congressional Republicans who control the federal lower house would move on their own plan — and if Harkin’s fellow Democrats in the House would team up on a similarly bipartisan proposal. Harkin himself made that clear last week. But that was never going to happen.
House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline may want to gut No Child’s accountability provisions, but he wasn’t going to help President Obama get even a cosmetic legislative victory in the one policy area in which he has garnered mostly-bipartisan praise. The fact that Kline only wants to pass a set of piecemeal bills instead of an omnibus version of federal education policy, along with the divide among congressional Republicans and their counterparts outside of Congress (including No Child’s masterminds Sandy Kress and former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, along with reform-minded governors, who have found No Child useful for their purposes), also dooms any effort on Kline’s part.
As for congressional Democrats? Given that the ranking member on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, George Miller, is a staunch defender of accountability, any effort to gut it wasn’t going to fly. Nor would it fly with other congressional Democrats. When the chairs of the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Asian-Pacific American Caucus, and Congressional Hispanic Caucus, declared last week in a letter to Harkin, Miller, Kline and Enzi that they would oppose any bill that didn’t keep and expand subgroup accountability and live up to No Child’s longstanding role as “a civil rights law”, Harkin had to know that nothing was going to happen on the legislative front.
Certainly Harkin-Enzi is now in a legislative coma. That is a good thing; it was a terrible piece of legislation. But the bad news is that Obama’s waiver plan, which will gut accountability as thoroughly as anything Harkin or Kline would offer, remains on course. School reformers will have to keep fighting to remind Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan of their responsibility to help all children succeed in school and in life — and that what they offer won’t do the job.