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With divided Congress, school reform faces a tough road ahead

Duncan said the Republican election victories wouldn't derail the administration's plans.

The Obama administration has pushed an ambitious education agenda in the last two years, sending $100 billion to states thorough the stimulus package and spurring reform in many locations through the Race to the Top competition.

But none of the major initiatives pushed by President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been bipartisan. Most were approved through large spending bills that Republicans opposed.

Politicians and experts say the big Republican gains in Congress will serve as a roadblock to further Democrat-led education reform efforts, including a likely decrease in big-ticket spending as the GOP seeks greater fiscal restraint.

Another round of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition, or a cash infusion like the $10 billion aid package Democrats passed earlier this fall to save thousands of teacher jobs, would almost certainly be blocked. Efforts to save Pell Grants for low- and middle-income students and revamp the No Child Left Behind Act will be complicated with Congress so divided.

“Obama and Duncan were very lucky that they had two years of relatively little interference from the Congress, and the Congress gave them a lot of money in education,” said Jack Jennings, director of the Center for Education Policy.

The GOP takeover of the House means that Rep. John Kline of Minnesota will become the chair of the Education and Labor Committee, giving the Minnesota Republican huge clout in shaping education spending.

Kline is a deficit hawk and retired Marine pilot who said it’s time to pull Washington out of the nation’s classrooms and stop using billions in federal dollars to bail out state education budgets.

“Washington does not have the money, and the states have got to face their own issues,” said Kline.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Duncan said he was optimistic the Republican election victories wouldn’t derail the administration’s plans, but conceded: “There’s no guarantee our agenda will continue to move.”

Both parties have agreed on the need to revamp No Child Left Behind, the nation’s most important—and controversial—education law. The law was passed on a bipartisan vote in 2001 when Congress was similarly divided between a Republican House and Democratic Senate.

“They’re so close on this issue, you could imagine both Democrats and Republicans saying, ‘This is something we promised our constituents, that we’d fix No Child Left Behind,” said Mike Petrilli, executive vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank.

But accomplishing even such a broadly held goal would require overcoming considerable divides between Democrats and Republicans on the role of the federal government in education, along with a different set of splits among Democrats over reforms like performance pay for teachers and charter schools.

Many of the ideas Obama has adopted, including tying teacher pay to student test scores, are ideas Republicans have traditionally adopted. But House Republicans rode a wave of anti-Obama and big government sentiment to victory this November and are certain to push for a smaller federal role in public education.

In an interview with the AP, Kline voiced opposition to a range of Obama education policies—from the Common Core academic benchmarks to the $4.35 billion Race to the Top—primarily because he opposes federal interference with state and local decisions on education. And while Kline approves of charter schools and performance pay for teachers, he doesn’t want the federal government to be making decisions in those areas.

He said No Child Left Behind is one area with room for compromise, partly because both sides want to trim the law’s reach in various ways.

“We’re going to make changes. How we do it, how big they are, how big the bill is, all those things are to be worked out,” Kline said from his Minnesota office.

Democratic lawmakers also see reforming the law as an opportunity for the parties to work together.

“I see no reason why we can’t do this by summer,” said Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the Democratic chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

Teacher unions—who heavily support Democratic candidates during elections—have resisted ideas like performance pay and charter schools.

“Where we are totally the same in looking at the current right now is that the status quo is not acceptable,” said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the 3.2 million member National Education Association

An outline for rewriting the law released by the Obama administration in March was designed to scale back federal involvement at most schools, asking states to develop high standards for students and teacher effectiveness. The nation’s lowest performing schools would be offered four turnaround models—including replacing the principal and a majority of the staff, and closing the schools altogether.

Republicans and Democrats have questioned the merit of the models, and the most conservative Republicans object to the federal government having any say on how a school is improved.

Whatever consensus Obama is able to reach on education with Democrats and Republicans, most agree his time is limited before presidential election politics start up again next fall.

“The challenge for getting [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act] reauthorized is not the makeup of Congress,” said Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust. “It’s the timing. I think if we don’t get it done by next fall, it will be very hard.”

Although higher education is expected to take a backseat to K-12 policy during the next Congress, two significant issues loom: the fate of federal student aid programs and Democratic-led efforts to crack down on for-profit colleges.

The Pell Grant program, a lifeline for low- and middle-income families trying to afford college, has enjoyed bipartisan support over the years. But with Republicans running on a call to cut spending, federal grants and loans subsidizing higher education record could be on the table.

For-profit colleges, meanwhile, are fighting a proposed Department of Education rule that would cut off federal aid to college vocational programs with high student-debt levels and poor loan repayment rates.

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