House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R) and counterpart George Miller are playing for keeps.

House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R) and counterpart George Miller are playing for keeps.

Beltway denizens love to make a lot of sound and fury over congressional legislation — especially when a bill has no chance of getting beyond the House or Senate floors. Nothing exemplifies this more than the hot and heavy action over House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline’s latest version of the Student Success Act, which will be voted on by tomorrow afternoon. But behind the spinning of wheels is the maneuvering and development of education policy that isn’t always clear to the public eye.

wpid-threethoughslogo.pngEveryone knows that Kline plan to reauthorize (and eviscerate the accountability provisions of) the No Child Left Behind Act has no more chance of winning passage in the Democrat-controlled Senate than the competing plan being offered by Kline’s Senate Democrat counterpart, Tom Harkin, will win House Republican approval. Yet Kline and ranking Democrat George Miller, along with their colleagues and allies among Beltway reformers, traditionalist players such as the National School Boards Association, and the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions, are slugging it out in letters, press releases, talking points, letter-writing campaigns, behind-the-scenes arm-twisting from campaign donors as well as other constituents, and even YouTube over the bill’s passage. [Your editor has been involved in the fun, this time through a consultancy that he runs that advises a few of the organizations on communications and policy.] Today, the National Republican Congressional Committee stepped it up a notch with a series of commercials in the districts of 10 of the Democrats’ most-vulnerable incumbents in order to put pressure on them to break away from the party line and vote for Kline’s bill, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has announced its opposition to the plan, threatening to ding those Republicans who vote for it.

All of this activity allows everyone involved to justify their existence, especially to the taxpayers. It may even advance systemic reform (eventually). But it also began the question: Why so much sparring over this version of reauthorizing No Child when it has no chance of becoming law? After all, the real action on the federal education policy front will come with the 2013-2104 fiscal year federal budget, which will determine whether the Obama Administration gets its way on funding its reform efforts — including its early childhood education initiatives and the latest version of Race to the Top focused on universities — or if there will be another round of sequestration-targeted budget cutting. So far, Senate Democrats on one Appropriations subcommittee, who share the same disdain as Kline for the administration’s competitive grant approach, have already taken the knife to those proposals (while supporting the early childhood education efforts). The answer lies in the political gamesmanship among all the players, including conservative and centrist Democrat reformers, to advance their particular goals.

For House Republicans, passing the Student Success Act allows them to play to movement conservatives in the Republican base whose votes helped them regain majority control of the federal lower house three years ago; this includes those who still hold recriminations over the excesses (perceived and real) of George W. Bush’s presidency who have been willing to punish Republicans senators and congressmen for being insufficiently dedicated to reducing the size of government. By passing the Student Success Act and its plan to eviscerate the very accountability provisions that have helped advance reforms movement conservatives support such as school choice as well hold districts accountable for federal spending, House Republicans can shore up their base — and even gain more seats during next year’s midterm election — by declaring that their bill would reduce the “federal footprint”, keep the U.S. Department of Education from becoming the nation’s school board, and stop “Washington bureaucrats” from meddling in schools. The No Child reauthorization plan also appeals to House Republican leaders (along with the rest of the GOP) looking for more tools in their gamesmanship against the Obama Administration. House Republicans have already shown their willingness to leverage legislation for political gains earlier this month when it passed a student loan revamp plan, then accused the Obama Administration and Senate Democrats of failing to reach a compromise with them.

The fact that the Student Success Act actually returns to the bad old days when the federal government ladled out dollars without demanding results from states and districts doesn’t exactly matter to some House Republicans. Especially Kline. Even as he rails against the federal role in education policy, he advocates strongly to increase the $11 billion doled out annually to the nation’s special education ghettos. This is because the suburban districts in the Minnesota district he represents have high numbers of students relegated to special ghettos; this includes South Washington, where 15 percent of young men in the district are labeled as special ed cases and two out of every five young men are labeled as either mentally retarded, developmentally delayed, having a specific learning disability, or being emotionally disturbed. This fact, along with the reality that suburban districts have also become dependent on Title I dollars and dislike how No Child’s accountability provisions have exposed their mediocrity, gives Kline plenty of reason to do whatever he can to allow federal money to flow freely.

But those who pander to the most-radical in their base pay the price for doing so. This is what Kline and his chief supporter in passing the Student Success Act, House Majority Whip Eric Cantor, are learning the hard way as they struggle to gain votes for its passage. Movement conservative true-believers in the Republican caucus balk at Kline’s plan because it doesn’t go far enough for them; they would rather back one of two other plans floating out there, including that from one-time reformer Lamar Alexander, and the A+ Act, a plan from former senator Jim DeMint that he has revived from his base as president of Heritage Foundation. Kline already had to kibosh his plan’s teacher quality provisions, which required states to use objective student test score growth data in teacher evaluations (and resembled the teacher quality reform efforts being advanced by the Obama Administration) after facing opposition from more-conservative Republican colleagues as well as from National Education Association. Then there are also those House Republicans who support the original No Child accountability provisions who think the plan goes too far. While Kline’s bill will probably get enough votes to pass, he has stirred up a proverbial hornet’s nest that will eventually lead to him getting stung.

But the politicking over the Student Success Act isn’t just beneficial to Republicans. House Democrats, who oppose Kline’s plan, can also shore up their own base. Traditionalists such as the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers will join House Democrats in opposing Kline’s plan because it would keep in place sequestration-triggered budget cuts that went into place earlier this year — including reductions in Title II dollars used for funding the two union’ allies among the nation’s ed schools along with financing the class-size reduction plans they favor. The fact that the NEA and AFT are standing behind House Democrats despite their opposition to the reforms championed by the House Democrats’ point person on education, George Miller (who co-wrote No Child), as well as by the Obama Administration, is another reminder that teachers’ unions and Democrats are tied together more by mutual convenience and need than agreement on levels of federal education spending. [This also explains why the AFT teamed up with the Education Trust, the leading think tank among centrist and liberal Democrats reformers, for a campaign against the Kline plan.]

Speaking of centrist and liberal Democrat reformers: They have to oppose the Student Success Act on principle alone. After all, the Kline plan would be a roll-back of the very accountability provisions centrists and liberal democrat reformers — along with conservative reformers of the standards-and-accountability mode (back when they were a little more thoughtful than they are now) — have advanced for the past three decades. But it isn’t just about principle. By rallying their allies around opposing the Student Success Act, centrist Democrats can also obscure how their own miscalculations — first by demanding a speedy reauthorization of No Child, then with their backing of the Obama Administration’s waiver gambit — has led to the mess (including 39 accountability systems and moves by state such as Alabama, Tennessee, and Florida to develop Plessy v. Ferguson-like proficiency targets that condemn poor and minority children with low expectations) that is hindering reform efforts across the country. Particularly for EdTrust, which aroused ire from civil rights-based reform allies last year for its role in helping Florida define proficiency down, going full bore against the Student Success Act is also a  way to make amends.

As for conservative reformers? Those such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute who support the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards are using the Student Success Act to bolster their bona fides with movement conservative who, along with fellow conservative reformers such as University of Arkansas’ Jay P. Greene and the Pioneer Institute’s Jim Stergios, are opposed to the effort. Even as Fordham teams up with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education to launch a new effort to win movement conservative backing for the standards (and fact-check the conspiracy-theorizing being spun by Common Core foes), it and other conservative reformers must also please the activists and philanthropists in the conservative movement upon which they are dependent for funding. Particularly for Fordham, backing the Kline plan also makes sense given that the rival Republican plan coming from Sen. Alexander — which Fordham has supported* — has even lower shot of being passed. This explains why the Politico op-ed written last week by Fordham’s president, Chester Finn, and major domo Michael Petrilli, touted both the Kline and Alexander plans. Meanwhile other conservative reformers, including school choice activists, are hoping that Cantor’s proposed plan to essentially voucherize Title I dollars and allow them to be used by kids to attend any public school will eventually be expanded to allow for use in private and parochial schools as well.

The stakes for some of the players are higher than others. Advocates for American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children, for example, are worried that the Kline plan calls for Title VII to be merged into Title I would lead to scarce funding for their academic and cultural programs (including the $122 million spent on Indian education grants alone) would be commingled and directed away from programs serving our kids. It is why organizations such as the National Indian Education Association have worked feverishly today to successfully pass an amendment co-sponsored by Alaska Republican Don Young and Hawaii Democrat Tulsi Gabbard to retain Title VII as its own funding stream; the amendment was passed 263-161 with 70 of Kline’s fellow Republicans (mindful of their support from Indian tribes) crossing over to support it. For Native education groups, the fear wasn’t that the Student Success Act will come into law, but that the passage of the proposal with the merger of Title VII into Title I in place will lead to the elimination of Native education plans altogether in the next couple of years. Given concerns among Native groups about the impact of sequestration-targeted cuts (including $67 million reduction in Impact Aid to traditional districts that serve Native students and other children on tribal and federal property that districts cannot tax), as well as questions about the Obama Administration’s direction on reforming the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education, Native outfits would naturally fight against another round of federal backsliding.

The ultimate goal for all the players? Set the parameters for policy negotiations in 2015, when the Obama Administration’s desire to ensure that its school reform legacy is codified into law before the president’s final term expires finally leads it to pass a No Child reauthorization plan of some kind. Whether or not anything in Kline’s plan, or any of the plans for that matter, becomes reality is a different story. The political climate inside the Beltway may change. Considering the general disdain among voters for both parties and the president, there is just as much likelihood that the House will be back in Democrat hands (and the Education and the Workforce Committee under the chairmanship of Miller) as there is a chance of Republicans taking back the Senate. While such a scenario could produce loggerheads similar to what is happening now (especially if Alexander wins an unlikely re-election and takes over the Senate’s education committee), it could also result in a compromise deal that looks more like the current No Child (or even Harkin’s woeful version) than anything Kline would want. The Obama Administration’s No Child waiver gambit may be so counterproductive to systemic reform efforts on the ground that centrist Democrats take their grumblings about the effort public, and force the administration into a direction more to their liking.

For the wonks and activists in the Beltway, the gamesmanship is fun. Whether any of it helps children succeed in school and life? No Child’s passage a decade ago proves that it can be. But so long as so many interests are in play, it is always an open question.

*An earlier version mentioned that Sen. Alexander sat on the Fordham Institute board. It has been corrected.