After years on the political back burner, education is making a comeback in Washington, driven in large part by Democrats.
President Barack Obama has made saving teachers' jobs a key part of his effort to sell his $447 billion jobs package as he travels the country. Senate Democrats have made dramatic pleas to help schools with budget woes, and in a last-ditch effort to get at least part of the president's plan passed, a vote is expected soon on a section of the plan designed to save the jobs of teachers and first responders.
Separately, a Senate committee was to meet Wednesday to debate and amend the education law known as No Child Left Behind, one of the most significant efforts in the Senate to update the law since it was passed in 2002. Signaling some rare bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., the top senators from their respective parties on education, announced agreement on the bill Monday.
But that agreement didn't satisfy the Obama administration, which voiced concern that the bill doesn't include a requirement that states and local districts develop plans for evaluating teachers and principals.
Last month, Obama announced he was frustrated that Congress hadn't fixed No Child Left Behind, despite widespread agreement that the 2002 law had flaws. He said he would allow states that met certain conditions to get around some of the provisions of the law. At least 39 states, in addition to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have told the Education Department they intend to seek a waiver.
Republicans have scoffed at many of the Democrats' efforts. On Tuesday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell likened the president's jobs plan to "bailouts" that perpetuate economic problems, not solve them. He said the "American people didn't send us here to kick our problems down the road, and they certainly didn't send us here to repeat the same mistakes over and over again — and then stick them and their children with the tab."
As for changes to No Child Left Behind, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former education secretary, said Monday that while he wasn't completely happy with the Harkin-Enzi bill, he planned to support passing it out of committee because if Congress didn't act, Education Secretary Arne Duncan would become a "waiver-granting czar" under Obama's plan.
Alexander said there was no reason Congress couldn't fix the law and send it to Obama by the end of the year before the first waivers are expected to be issued to states.
On the House side, a GOP-led committee has forwarded three bills that would revamp aspects of the law but has yet to fully tackle some of the more contentious issues, such as teacher effectiveness and accountability.
The White House has said that nearly 300,000 jobs in the education sector have been lost since 2008 and that Obama's plan would support the hiring or re-hiring of 400,000 educators.
When the president's plan was brought up in the Senate last week, not a single Republican senator supported it and it died. Democrats then said they would bring up parts of it separately, starting with the plan to save teachers' and first responders' jobs. Focusing on the plights of students unable to take physical education and art classes and school districts that have moved to a four-day school week because of budget cuts could help to put a sympathetic face on the administration's jobs plan and make it harder for Republicans to attack.
Obama, at a stop Tuesday at Guilford Technical Community College in Jamestown, N.C., sought to sell his plan by emphasizing that budget problems could get worse for schools.
"I hope that members of Congress are going to be doing a little bit of listening to teachers and educators," Obama said. "We have a tendency to say great things about how important education is in the abstract, but we don't always put our money where our mouth is, and it's absolutely critical right now to make sure that we don't see the kinds of cutbacks that we've been seeing."
In support of the president's jobs plan, labor unions were expected to give the White House a boost Wednesday by sending hundreds of teachers, police and firefighters to a rally on Capitol Hill.
Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., said he thinks Obama recognizes the pinch states and local governments are feeling and genuinely believes that educators' and first responders' jobs need to be preserved.
Madonna added that there's no doubt Obama can help rally key constituent groups such as teachers unions to support his plan. Along the way, Madonna said, the president is helping to make an argument that will probably be key to his re-election campaign — that Republicans are obstructionists.
"I don't think there's any doubt that they have constituencies in unions, they have constituencies in school boards, they have constituencies in elected officials. You get a lot of potential political support from the folks who deliver these services," Madonna said. "So I think he gains a lot out of that."
Associated Press writer Sam Hananel contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.