The chairman of the House of Representatives subcommittee in charge of rewriting of the No Child Left Behind Act said this week that lawmakers would be hard pressed to pass a bill this year, despite assurances from other top lawmakers and a push from Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
"It will be difficult," said Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., head of the House panel on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, the first checkpoint for any House version of a proposal. "Time is running out, and it’s an election year, too. People are going back home for that."
Observers and congressional staff point to a crowded legislative calendar and a lack of consensus that’s magnified during a campaign season. Kildee’s comments are the clearest indication yet from congressional leadership that one of the president’s top domestic priorities of 2010 may have to wait at least a year.
Still, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the full House Education and Labor Committee, said he still plans to tackle the measure before Labor Day. But when told of Kildee’s assessment, and other similar ones, Miller quipped, "I wish they’d talk to me, because then I’d stop working on it."
Miller’s committee has scheduled a hearing for April 30.
The situation in the Senate is not much better, which is compounded by the president’s looming appointment of a new Supreme Court justice. Still, action remains possible this year, said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
"We’re moving. We have our schedule," said Harkin, whose panel has held at least a hearing a week on the unwritten bill. "If the floor gets plugged up and stuff, we’re going to see who’s plugging up the floor — who’s not allowing us to get to the floor."
Harkin said he wants a bill through the Senate before Congress’ August break. But committee leaders have settled few, if any, of the details.
The No Child Left Behind Act, heralded as a bipartisan breakthrough when signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, has since become the scorn of teachers, parents and state officials. Many complain that the law relies too heavily on standardized tests and focuses on punishing schools rather than improving them.
The Obama administration unveiled a 41-page blueprint for the education law overhaul in March. Still, there’s very little agreement in Congress on what to do, other than that something needs to be done.
The sticking points: Republicans want any new law to give leeway to rural schools, which often don’t have the same resources as the nation’s larger school districts. There are also questions about charter schools (the administration loves them, but Democrats are split); linking teacher pay to student test scores; and how to enforce lesson standards without creating a national curriculum — something all sides say they oppose.
The unsettled tensions in Congress have found their way back to the Education Department. When Duncan spoke to a group of Hispanic college administrators last week, he said that "it might not pass this year."
For things to change, education experts said, there would need to be a huge push from the White House, which could include writing part of the bill.
That approach would be counterproductive, said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the ranking Republican on Miller’s panel.
"It might cause people to dig in," Kline said, noting that even some Democrats disagree with the administration on parts of the law. "The potential is for this to be a bipartisan process."
Kildee, for his part, said Congress needs to take its time. Congress took about nine months in 2001 to move No Child Left Behind from the House floor to Bush’s desk.
"Even though we haven’t accomplished a great deal, the process has been good," he said. "It was a long time last time."