It’s Time for Congress to Roll Up Its Sleeves

House and Senate Need to Reauthorize ESEA

Jeremy Ayers explains why Congress needs to prioritize reform of our main federal education law.

A teacher helps a student with a math problem while teaching a first-grade class at Bear Exploration Magnet School, in Montgomery, Alabama. (AP/Rob Carr)
A teacher helps a student with a math problem while teaching a first-grade class at Bear Exploration Magnet School, in Montgomery, Alabama. (AP/Rob Carr)

 See also: The Time Is Now: Reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and Interactive Timeline: Back to School for Congress

Congress has a lot of work to do as it comes back to session this week. Near the top of its to-do list should be updating the main federal education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA. That will take a big lift, but it can be done. And it should be done. Our nation’s schools depend on it.

ESEA was originally passed in 1965 to help schools address problems associated with poverty, and it must be reauthorized every five years. Congress last reauthorized the law in 2002 and renamed it No Child Left Behind. NCLB would have been revised in 2007, but a series of setbacks left it operating on autopilot. Two weeks ago President Barack Obama called on Congress to reauthorize ESEA by the start of the next school year, which would fall around the week of September 6, the day after Labor Day.

Besides needing reauthorization, ESEA is badly in need of repairs. The law’s accountability system isn’t working. Schools are required to implement improvement strategies that are not strong enough to help them improve, and they get zero credit for making growth. The law’s teacher policy ensures teachers have degrees and credentials but doesn’t make sure they’re effective at improving student learning. And the law’s investment in such things as supplemental educational services—policy-speak for tutoring—have proven weak levers for helping schools get better.

The president and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan warned federal policymakers that 82 percent of schools will be labeled failing next year under ESEA’s outdated accountability system. The administration also put out a blueprint for reforming ESEA just over a year ago, and it is urging swift action to update federal law along the lines of the blueprint.

Achieving the president’s ambitious deadline will take lots of political maneuvering and deft legislative action, to say the least. While most Democrats have been seconding the president’s agenda for a while, House Republicans aren’t biting. The very day President Obama called for a speedy reauthorization, Rep. John Kline (R-MN), chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, called the president’s deadline an “arbitrary timeline” and said he and his members would move at their own pace.

Add in a slew of conservative House freshmen wary of federal involvement, Republican veterans bruising from the health care debate, and a handful of Democratic senators up for tough re-election fights in 2012, and what do you get? A pretty tough dough that needs to be massaged—maybe beaten—to get it into shape for consumption.

Encouragingly, though, Democrats and Republicans largely agree ESEA’s problems need fixing, and there is some historical precedent that education can be a bipartisan issue if Congress wants it to be.

The Center for American Progress has issued a series of recommendations for reforming ESEA that can forge a path forward for reauthorization. To see how the political process is going, we’ve created an interactive timeline that sketches out what steps the Senate and House must take to deliver a bill to the president by the first week of school.

With clear priorities and an urgent deadline, now is the time for Congress to act.

Jeremy Ayers is the Senior Education Policy Analyst at American Progress.

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Jeremy Ayers

Associate Director, Federal Education Programs