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.

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