Congressional leaders are hoping to send President Obama legislation that re-writes the unpopular No Child Left Behind law, but the bill must first survive a contentious negotiation process between the House and Senate that will focus on how much control the federal government has over local education.
Those talks, which could begin next week, will also be complicated by President Obama, who wants to go beyond the bipartisan Senate bill and increase federal accountability measures before he signs it into law. That pressure from the White House directly contradicts the goal of House Republicans, whose bill does more to cut back the federal government's role.
The result is a three-way standoff that will likely determine how much Washington will control education in the years ahead.
"The larger question is what type of role does the federal government have in education," one committee aide told the Washington Examiner. "How much involvement is there?"
The Senate just passed a No Child rewrite measure with a bipartisan vote. The legislation was authored by Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
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Earlier this month, the House passed its own legislation reforming the law, but it was written entirely by Republicans and passed without a single Democratic vote. That bill has earned a veto threat from President Obama.
Now, the two chambers must meet to work out potentially significant differences between the two bills, with Obama looking over their shoulders. Talks could begin as soon as next week, Republican aides told the Examiner.
Democrats are already warning House Republicans they won't accept the lower chamber's bill, the Student Success Act, which gives states vastly more power over education standards than the Senate bill and provides more flexibility for states to spend federal education money.
"Unfortunately, so far, House Republicans have chosen a partisan approach," Murray said after passage of the Senate rewrite. She said the bills should not be seen as something that can lead to a compromise once they're averaged out. "Theirs really represents an unacceptable, partisan approach and ours represents a carefully negotiated compromise."
Often in Congress, strong bipartisan passage can give one chamber leverage over the other when it comes to melding two versions of legislation. In this instance, it will likely give senators an initial upper hand in the yet-to-be scheduled talks.
House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., said after the Senate passed its bill that he's confident "we will find common ground and send a bill to the president's desk." But Kline has said he expects the conservative House version will have to move toward something moderate enough to win over Democrats and the president.
According to committee aides, the two chambers are likely to identify similarities first, such as an agreement that the federal government should have no role in encouraging or promoting the controversial "Common Core" education program.
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The two chambers are also likely to agree that the legislation should include ridding the law of a "one size fits all" accountability metric, and should let states determine federally mandated standards and accountability.
From there, the negotiations could become difficult, as there is much in the House bill that congressional Democrats oppose. Chief among them is a provision allowing "portability" of federal Title I funding that would allow money to follow students to different school districts and even charter schools.
The House bill goes further to untether state and local school districts from federal government oversight. Democrats say those provisions will steer money away from the neediest and do little to ensure low-performing schools take steps to improve, as is required under current law.
The House bill also eliminates and consolidates more programs than the Senate bill, which grew in size during the amendment process on the floor.
"That is going to be an area where we sit down and work out those differences," a GOP aide said.
And then members must deal with the demands of the White House. While there has been no direct veto threat of the Senate bill, the Obama administration wants changes to ensure the federal government maintains control over low-performing schools. In both the Senate and House legislation, the states gain the authority.
"This bill still falls short of truly giving every child a fair shot at success by failing to ensure that parents and children can count on local leaders to take action when students are struggling to learn," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.