Despite the controversy surrounding who should determine how to turn around low-performing public schools and how teachers should be held to account for achievement standards, Senate committee leaders have reached rare accord on ways to improve legislation that for years has been a political mine field.
"No bill has everything everybody wants. I understand that," said Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin at a hearing Tuesday morning, referring to the education legislation he co-authored with the committee's ranking member, Sen. Mike Enzi.
"This bill is not Mr. Enzi's bill, and it ain't mine, either. But it is ours," Harkin said. "And in that way, we make those kinds of agreements."
Committee leaders are promoting legislation that revamps the current education policy, dubbed "No Child Left Behind," which was due for revision in 2007 and has become increasingly unpopular among teachers, school boards, and union officials.
"As an educator, just the connotation of the term No Child Left Behind, it really is demoralizing to us at this point," said Pam Geisselhardt, coordinator of gifted and talented education at Adair County Schools in Kentucky. "Because there is so much focus on testing, testing, testing that we have no time to teach."
Harkin argued the No Child Left Behind act's flaws are reason enough to find bipartisan cooperation on a new bill.
"I think a central question is: Is it better than the present bill? Does it advance the cause of finding the proper balance between federal, state, and local [control]?" Harkin asked. "And does it warrant general support across a wide spectrum, knowing full well that everyone here has something probably that they would like to change in that bill, including Mr. Enzi and me?"
The political battle centers on the appropriate role of federal and state governments to determine where funding should be directed and how to hold teachers and principals accountable.
Some say the Harkin-Enzi bill still includes too big of a role for the federal government in education, while others claim that giving states too much leeway on accountability is a recipe for disaster.
One civil rights leader told lawmakers he's worried that too little federal role in education could cause a return to discrimination and a backsliding from the gains made in closing achievement gaps between races and income classes.
"Under the guise of reform, the provisions in the bill go too far to negate the legitimate federal interest that we recognize exists," said Wade Henderson, president of The Leadership Conference, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group. "So rather than weakening that federal interest, given the history of bias and discrimination under the state system, if anything we should be looking to reinforce it in a more significant and positive way."
But Tom Luna, Idaho's school superintendent, said states now understand their responsibility.
"There are some on this panel who think that if the federal government does not mandate something, then the states will not do it," he said. "And I think our actions speak otherwise."
Luna pointed to the Common Core standards, a state-initiated effort to create higher standards of learning, as one example.
"Today we have states that ... without any mandate from the federal government, have adopted a standard that is comparable to any academic standard in the world," Luna said.
But Harkin says that the issue's complexity is not a reason to abandon the attempt. Arguing for his bill's viability, Harking referred to one witness calling No Child Left Behind "the good, the bad, and the ugly."
"What we've tried to do," Harkin explained, "is get rid of the bad and the ugly and keep the good, and tried to expand on that."
The bill still has to face the full Senate, and would then need to pass the Republican-led House. GOP leaders have taken a different approach to the issue, preferring instead to pass education policy changes piecemeal.