WASHINGTON – From wildly different political vantages, U.S. Reps. John Kline and Keith Ellison and Sen. Al Franken have spent the better part of July urging colleagues to peel back the 14-year-old No Child Left Behind law and replace it with fewer tests and fewer federal requirements.
The work is more than a decade in the making, and each Minnesota member has a different desire in the outcome.
And because it’s education politics, there are odd bedfellows.
Democrats, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and civil rights leaders are urging states to retain testing requirements and some level of federal accountability. On the other side, Tea Party groups, liberal and mostly urban parents, and many Republicans are pushing for more local control and the easing of testing in schools.
The debates on Capitol Hill have been emotional.
The Republican-controlled House already has passed a measure that strips out many of the original tenets of former President George W. Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind, including giving states a lot more power to decide how to handle failing schools.
The House proposal, authored by Kline, who chairs the House Education and Workforce Committee, eliminates some annual reporting requirements and blocks the Common Core, a national set of education standards that has become anathema for Republican policymakers.
For Kline, getting a bill to President Obama’s desk would be a career achievement. He believes No Child’s current form is unworkable for schools and wants to block the Obama administration from giving more waivers to states to do whatever they want.
His bill passed last week without a single Democrat voting yes.
Maybe that’s why Kline said he isn’t taking a victory lap yet. The Senate still has to pass its version and because Senate rules require 60 votes for passage, the bill is more bipartisan.
This means it will get tossed back to Kline, and he eventually will have to negotiate a broader deal — likely with some Democrats — to achieve support for another House passage.
“I think the place you start are places where we already know we have firm agreement,” Kline said.
Ellison, who navigates a markedly different political sphere from Kline, also wants less testing. He actually was among a handful of Democrats who supported a mostly Republican measure to allow parents to opt their students out of testing requirements altogether. It’s something he said he supported after hearing from parents in Minneapolis, which has one of the highest “opt-out” testing rates in the nation.
Ellison said he is most passionate about poor kids’ funding, though, which is why he didn’t support Kline’s measure.
“Our country doesn’t have a problem with educating well-to-do kids, but we need to make sure that kids with lower-income backgrounds can have a good shot at an education, and I think this bill did the opposite of that and I think that’s pretty disappointing,” Ellison said.
Franken, a Democrat who sits on the Senate’s education committee, has fingerprints all over the final bill, including better principal training and a school counseling measure. He also led an antibullying measure for gay and lesbian students, which failed on Tuesday, and went to the Senate floor this week brandishing large color photos of adolescents who took their own lives because they were bullied.
“It is our responsibility, not just as senators but as adults, to protect children,” he said, after talking about teen suicide.
Looming behind the volleys on Capitol Hill is what the White House plans to do with a bipartisan compromise that could remove a lot of federal authority. Officials there have issued a veto threat to Kline’s bill, and have indicated they don’t like the Senate bill.
The White House stopped short of issuing a veto threat, though.
Franken said that when House and Senate leaders get together, the man in the White House will be the ultimate check and balance.
“What you have to understand is for a bill to become law, it needs the president’s signature, so there’s that,” he said, deadpanning.
Asked whether he worried about having to vote on a bill that is too conservative, Franken said: “The check here is that we control the executive branch of government and the president has to sign this, and believe me, everyone has been very well aware of this piece.”
Rick Hess, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a close friend of Kline’s, says the odds of the two chambers coming together to craft a bill that Obama agrees to are low.
With a 2016 presidential election looming large, the time to move large policy pieces of legislation is right now, he said.
“The challenge is finding a way to reconcile some of these differences … in a way you can carry the House and the president will sign it,” Hess said. “That will be a real challenge.”