Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and key lawmakers planted the seeds Wednesday to move forward with reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary School Act, better known as No Child Left Behind, as early as this year.
Duncan met with the chairs and ranking members of the committees in both chambers of Congress with jurisdiction over education, calling them "the big eight": Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., as well as Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., John Kline, R-Minn., Dale Kildee, D-Mich., and Michael Castle, R-Del.
"What you had was the big eight all say, let's do it, let's do it together and let's try and work on that now," said Duncan, who described the meeting as a "home run" during an interview with NationalJournal.com.
Branded by the Bush administration as No Child Left Behind, the landmark 2002 education bill sought to usher in a new era of accountability by requiring states to implement standardized testing and move toward the goal of having all students score "proficient" in reading and math by 2014. Supporters lauded the passage of No Child Left Behind as a significant bipartisan achievement, but some in both parties have turned against the law since then. NCLB was up for reauthorization in 2007, but negotiations between the Democratic-led Congress and President Bush broke down.
Democrats and Republicans both want reauthorization, but exactly how the law should be revised is a thorny issue.
In the face of an election year with a crowded legislative agenda, many had assumed the bill would have to wait until 2011. However, Wednesday's meeting indicates that reauthorization may gain a foothold sooner.
A spokesperson for Enzi, ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, affirmed his commitment to moving forward in 2010. For reauthorization, Enzi is concerned with maintaining the core principles of the legislation, addressing the distinct needs of rural schools and granting additional flexibility in how states and schools meet federal accountability requirements. Castle also voiced his support for moving forward on No Child Left Behind this year.
What's more, the Learning First Alliance, an organization that represents the two largest teachers unions, among other national education groups, sent a press release Wednesday urging the administration to move swiftly on reauthorization. Alliance leaders pledged their commitment to work with Duncan and President Obama.
"I'm anxious to begin working with my House and Senate colleagues to improve education for our children across the country," said Kildee, chairman of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education. He also noted that reauthorization offers a great opportunity to work in a bipartisan manner, a sentiment shared by many congressional staff, whose bosses attended the meeting.
Not everyone was equally optimistic about giving wings to NCLB at this time. "It would be an inordinate challenge," one senior Senate staffer said. Kline, ranking member of the Education and Labor Committee, emphasized that the focus should be on getting a quality bill, not on meeting a deadline.
But Duncan is acutely aware that consensus around the idea of reauthorizing No Child Left Behind won't automatically translate into success. The education chief noted that things could fall apart at any time but described himself as optimistic after seeing the big eight's commitment to move forward at the meeting.