When it comes to efforts to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, hope always triumphs over reality. Even when the kabuki of markups and posturing resemble those of past years, it is easier for some to think that actual legislation will be passed and signed. This time around, the fervent faith can be found among conservative Beltway reformers, who have been irrationally exuberant about the chances of congressional Republicans passing a new version of No Child that they favor since winning control of the Senate and gaining more seats in the House last year.
But the news today that President Barack Obama has pledged to veto any version of the House Republican rewrite of No Child, the Student Success Act, should give conservative reformers pause. So should the sparring between congressional leaders in the House and Senate over whether to excise part of the proposed bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security that essentially kiboshes Obama’s executive order temporarily staying deportation for five million undocumented emigres, many of whom have children who are American citizens by birth. Both situations serve as reminders to reformers of all stripes that they need to focus more time on the nation’s statehouses (where systemic reform efforts are on the agenda) than all the pantomime on Capitol Hill.
Your editor laid out what was likely to happen on the federal education policy front back in November, just after Obama issued his executive order on immigration. Back then, I noted that the president had few reasons to sign any version of No Child coming from congressional Republicans, especially since the latter seeks a total defeat of the Obama Administration’s political agenda. Given that the administration can go ahead and issue extensions of waivers granted as part of its No Child waiver gambit, and that the president no longer has to worry about defending a Democratic majority in Congress, Obama will do whatever is legally and constitutionally possible to defend his legacy on one of his few policy successes. And because congressional Republicans don’t have veto-proof majorities (and cannot count on any support from Democrats), the president will get what he wants.
At the same time, I noted that congressional Republicans would struggle to pass any legislation, much less a reauthorized version of No Child, because of divides between Senate and House Republicans (each of whom are driven by different political pressures), within their respective caucuses, and between congressional leaders and Republican governors who benefit from the Obama Administration’s waiver gambit. Stalemate was more-likely to be the norm than the exception, save for nearly all spending bills; after all, the Members have to bring pork home to their districts as well as preserve iron triangle relationships from which they can profit once they leave office.
The months since have proven both points. Obama’s veto this week of a bill authorizing construction of the Keystone Pipeline, a project that was of little significance either economically or ecologically (but a political football for both political parties), made clear that he wasn’t simply going to do the bidding of congressional Republicans. The administration’s decision to file a request for a Texas U.S. District Court judge to overrule his decision halting implementation of his immigration executive order — which will lead to a swift appeal once he rules against it — also shows that Obama is sticking to his agenda.
Meanwhile congressional Republicans are struggling to get their own side together. Last month’s revolt by movement conservative true-believers in the caucus against re-electing Speaker John Boehner to another term atop the House revealed how difficult it would be for Republican leadership on the body to get anything passed. That Boehner was then forced to pull back an anti-abortion bill, the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, after moderates in the caucus balked at a provision supporting the ban of the operations after a child has been in the womb for 20 weeks, also shows how difficult it will be for the party to pass all but the least-controversial legislation.
These events haven’t convinced conservative reformers and others of the unlikelihood of a No Child reauthorization. In fact, both former Fordham Institute President Checker Finn and Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute have pieces out lionizing the Student Success Act as legislation that reaffirms the role of states in setting education policy. The fact that both Finn and Hess conveniently ignore that this was actually done by No Child, which gives states wide leeway in meeting basic accountability for student achievement in exchange for federal dollars they agree to receive, shows that both men are engaging in pure intellectual sophistry. Andy Smarick of Bellwether Education Partners, slightly conceding that the low odds of reauthorization, is still offering some convoluted scenario for a compromise on No Child (led by state governments) that isn’t likely to ever happen.
But yesterday’s news about Obama’s veto, along with the stalemate over the Homeland Security funding bill, should force conservative reformers and others to accept reality.
Obama’s announcement of the veto should have been expected by anyone with a modest level of political discernment. After all, the Student Success Act is just another warmed-over version of the No Child evisceration House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline has tried to make law since taking over the panel four years ago. Other than a move to ban restricting the Obama Administration its successors from supporting implementation of state-initiated reforms such as Common Core reading and math standards (a practice that dates back to the Reagan Administration’s publication of A Nation at Risk), the Student Success Act (or H.R. 5, for short) does little more than allow states to spend federal dollars as freely as they did in the years before the passage of No Child 13 years ago.
Since the law also aimed to abolish competitive grant programs such as Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation initiatives that have been the cornerstone of the Obama Administration’s reform efforts, there was no way that the president would even think of signing it. It isn’t just about the administration’s legacy. As Dropout Nation has argued in the past, Race to the Top alone deserves credit for encouraging states to undertake much-needed reforms that are already helping children; this includes expanding the number of charter schools by 24 percent between 2009-2010 and 2013-2014 as well as the passage of Parent Trigger laws in seven states and the launch of voucher and tax credit programs in more than 15 states. [Martin West of Harvard University makes a similar case for I3.] Put simply, Kline’s plan would be a setback for reform.
Conservative reformers hoping that Obama’s veto is just a prelude to the signing of a supposedly more moderate version from Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander are ignoring a few key facts.
For one, Alexander’s plan isn’t much different from Kline’s version, and not even much different from the proposals the former U.S. Secretary of Education (and erstwhile reformer) has been floating around since his days as Ranking Member. This includes essentially ditching the reductions in accountability to lowest-performing five percent of schools (along with another 10 percent of schools with wide achievement gaps) required under the Obama Administration’s senseless No Child waiver gambit. No way the Obama Administration can sign onto such a reauthorization without angering civil rights activists and centrist Democrat school reformers.
There’s also the fact that any plan coming out of Congress will try to reduce executive authority on the education policy front. No president, much less Obama (whose for whom use executive orders and waivers has been a hallmark of his tenure), will sign onto that. [Such political considerations is an underlying reason why governors attending this week’s winter meeting of the National Governors Association, a group that includes such presidential aspirants as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and John Kasich of Ohio, expressed concern about Kline’s and Alexander’s plans.]
All things considered — including the administration’s No Child waiver extensions (which will stretch beyond Obama’s time in the White House) — there’s no reason for Obama to negotiate anything with anyone. In fact, all he has to do is simply veto whatever No Child reauthorization comes to his desk. That’s if one comes at all. With the way congressional Republicans are sparring with each other over other legislation, it will be a miracle if any bill makes it off the Hill at all.
The past two weeks have seen Boehner and his fellow House Republicans spar with their peers in the Senate over the Homeland Security funding plan, which contains a poison pill restricting the administration from implementing its immigration order. House Republican leadership know that they can’t pass a Homeland Security bill without appealing to both Nativists in the party base as well as movement conservatives who want to hamstring Obama any way possible. Given that Boehner can no longer punish wayward members and cannot count on support from Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and her caucus, the speaker has no choice but to go along with his true-believers.
But Senate Republican leadership know they can’t pass such legislation. After all, they lack the 60 votes necessary to block a Senate Democrat filibuster, and worse, known that many of their own members support the kind of comprehensive immigration reform that the Obama Administration’s plan represents. [That Obama, being a lame duck president with nothing to lose, will veto it if the poison pill remains in place is also a factor.] This reality is why McConnell is offering up a version of the bill that only addresses funding and leaves the president’s executive order in place. This angers House Republicans such as Steve King, the leader of the anti-immigration faction in that caucus, who accused McConnell of just giving up.
Chances are that a Homeland Security funding bill will pass. After all, like defense, the agency is an iron triangle with businesses and other lobbies for whom congressional leaders will eventually work upon leaving office. But it is also possible that the federal government will not fund the salaries of those handling border patrols, airport check points, anti-terrorism operations, drug trafficking crackdowns, and guarding Obama. [All but 31,295 of them would still be working, albeit without pay.]
Meanwhile the intramural squabbling among Republicans has already spread from the Homeland Security bill to No Child reauthorization. Movement conservative true-believers, at the behest of movement conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and even less-sensible conservative reformers such as Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas, are complaining that Kline’s plan isn’t sufficiently conservative in their mind. They want the reauthorzation to allow states to opt out of annual testing (and betray the conservative principle that state must be accountable for federal dollars they receive) as well as voucherize Title 1 dollars (without requiring states to allow the rest of state funding to follow kids into schools they choose).
Other Republicans with American Indian tribes in their districts, will likely join Kline’s fellow Minnesotan in the House, Rick Nolan, to pass an amendment aimed at removing H.R. 5’s restriction on increasing funding for Native education programs. [Those Republicans and Democrats, by the way, teamed up two years ago to amend the earlier version of the Student Success Act and reverse Kline’s effort to eliminate Title VII funding.] Given the abysmal physical and academic conditions of schools run by U.S. Bureau of Indian Education, any reduction in Native education funding will be viewed as a moral violation as well as an abrogation of the federal government’s explicit constitutional responsibility to provide high-quality education to Native kids. Add in the other divides among congressional Republicans over the direction of federal education policy, and one can expect little to come to pass.
So those reformers, conservative and otherwise, expecting more from the Beltway other than the usual sound and fury signifying nothing will be disappointed. They shouldn’t be. History repeats and when it doesn’t, often rhymes. The better thing to do is to ignore the Beltway kabuki and get to work in statehouses while time still allows. After all, most state legislative sessions wrap up by the end of May.