Harkin-Enzi's hodgepodge

finally have a serious, thoughtful ESEA reauthorization proposal in the Senate,
one that should gain support from both sides of the aisle and both ends of
Pennsylvania Avenue. But here’s a warning: It’s not the bill that the Senate is
currently marking up.

arm wrestling photo

Like the guy in green, the Alexander-Burr proposal
is just plain stronger. (Photo by Hector Alejandro)

No, that bill, authored by
education-committee chairman Tom Harkin and ranking member Mike Enzi, is a
hodgepodge of half-baked ideas that should alarm folks on the right and
the left.

sure enough, progressives have already made their opinions clear on why the bill
should be stopped dead in its tracks. But it should offend conservatives
(including the Reform Realists among us) too,
though for very different reasons. Such conservatives should back the
aforementioned proposal put forward by
Senators Alexander, Burr, and others, instead.

are the Harkin-Enzi bill’s major offenses:

  • An
    expansive new reach into high schools
    . While the legislation
    deserves credit for handing many accountability decisions back to the
    states, it would launch a whole new series of federal interventions in the
    nation’s worst high schools. Targeting “dropout factories” might sound
    like a good idea until you consider the Department of Education’s capacity
    (or lack thereof) for tackling something so complicated and complex from
  • Maintaining
    the onerous “highly qualified teachers” mandate.
    One of No Child
    Left Behind’s most hated provisions is the requirement that teachers earn
    designation as “highly qualified.” Not only did this get the feds into the
    position of micromanaging teacher qualifications, it also did so in a
    clumsy way, focusing on paper credentials. The Administration’s waiver
    package moves to a policy of “non-enforcement” around this provision,
    signaling that it’s time to move on. And the Alexander proposal scraps it
    entirely. Meanwhile, Harkin-Enzi keeps the “highly qualified” rules in
    place for newly hired teachers.
  • Rather
    than eliminating or consolidating wasteful programs, it adds new ones
    As far as I can tell, few major programs are put on the chopping block,
    and several more are created, including a new initiatives for high
    schools, STEM, literacy, and “safe and healthy schools.” As the country is
    running a historic deficit, this is the best we can do?

Republicans, including ranking member Enzi and Senator Lamar Alexander, have
already signaled that they will vote to get the bill out of committee but can’t
support “sending it to the president” in its current form. Here’s hoping that
somewhere along the road to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (House of Representatives,
we’re looking at you!), these onerous provisions fall by the wayside.

Otherwise, Republicans would be wise to scrap
the bill and start over—with Senator Alexander’s proposal as the jumping-off
point. It’s a much stronger bill, closer in many ways to the Administration’s
own Blueprint, and much more serious about re-calibrating the federal role in
education. And if Democrats won’t go for that—well, wait for a more favorable
environment in 2013.

This piece originally
(in a slightly different form) on Fordham’s
Flypaper blog.
Subscribe to
Flypaper here.

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Click to listen to commentary on the Harkin-Enzi proposal from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.