Momentum Builds to Reform ESEA

Congressional Members and Organizations Want an Improved Education Law

Recent developments indicate the public and congressional members want a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year, write Cynthia Brown and Jeremy Ayers.

Rep. John Kline's (R-MN) bill would  dismantle decades of reliable federal investment in the education of disadvantaged children. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Rep. John Kline's (R-MN) bill would dismantle decades of reliable federal investment in the education of disadvantaged children. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Momentum is building for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, the largest federal program designed to improve education, particularly for disadvantaged students. Just last week a broad range of groups urged Congress to reform ESEA this year with strong accountability provisions. The organizations included the Chamber of Commerce, the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the Children’s Defense Fund, and the Business Roundtable.

These groups do not always agree on issues. Their joint effort to speed along reauthorization shows how committed a large segment of the public is to revising federal education law. And it was this type of broad, bipartisan effort that paved the way for reauthorization of ESEA the last time it was updated in 2002, when it was renamed No Child Left Behind.

ESEA is badly in need of repair. Its teacher policy ensures teachers have degrees and credentials but it doesn’t make sure the teachers are effective at improving student learning. Further, schools are required to implement improvement strategies that are not strong enough to help them improve, and they get zero credit for making growth. Updating the law, therefore, should be a high priority for lawmakers even as they debate the budget, the debt ceiling, and other pressing matters.

President Barack Obama, for his part, challenged Congress to reauthorize ESEA by September. Meeting the deadline will take some political muscle but a number of developments outlined below indicate reauthorization could happen in the near future if Congress gets to work now.

Congressional leaders, for example, remain stubbornly committed to writing and passing a new education bill this session. Last week the Congressional Tri-Caucus released a letter calling on Congress to revise ESEA soon and to ensure schools are held accountable for meeting the needs of student subgroups such as low-income students, students of color, and students with disabilities. The Tri-Caucus is composed of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators voiced their desire, as early as January, to see a bill written this year. The group, known as the Big Four, includes Sens. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Michael Enzi (R-WY), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), and Lamar Alexander (R-TN). All are senior members of the Senate Education Committee and all have a history of working together on education issues, including the last time ESEA was reauthorized in 2002.

The House has done its part, too. A bipartisan group known as the Big Eight met with the president twice to discuss reauthorizing ESEA. It includes the top education leaders in the House—Reps. John Kline (R-MN), George Miller (D-CA), Duncan Hunter (R-CA), and Dale Kildee (D-MI)—plus the Senate Big Four.

Rep. Kline, chair of the House Education Committee, has scheduled five hearings on education since February 10. While the topics focused on limiting federal involvement in education, the actual discussion at those hearings was about how to improve ESEA. Chairman Kline may be unsure about what he calls the president’s “arbitrary timeline” for reauthorizing ESEA by September. But he’s certainly making significant efforts to get his freshman members up to speed.

Last year the House made great strides in writing a bipartisan draft bill reauthorizing ESEA. The draft didn’t get a vote but it wouldn’t be surprising if that’s the starting point for future negotiations.

The Center for American Progress believes reauthorization offers a seminal opportunity to advance smart, progressive policies that improve the educational outcomes for all of our nation’s students. It has outlined key recommendations for reforming ESEA including:

The Center stands ready to guide and support their efforts as Congress gets serious about revising federal law.

Cynthia Brown is Vice President for Education Policy and Jeremy Ayers is a Senior Education Analyst at American Progress.

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Cynthia G. Brown

Former Senior Fellow

Jeremy Ayers

Associate Director, Federal Education Programs