Publication Date

April 1, 2011

On March 14, 2011, President Obama urged Congress to fix the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law before the start of the next school year in September. In recent weeks, the president has raised the public profile of K–12 education reform by making the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) one of the major themes of his State of the Union address. Over a year ago, the Obama Administration released its “Blueprint for Reform” detailing its plan for rewriting the law.

Neither party is happy with the results of the most previous reauthorization of the education law, NCLB. This sentiment is largely shared across the country by state governors, local school boards, administrators, and teachers. As a result, K–12 education reform may be one area where the partisan gridlock that has plagued issues like health care and deficit reduction may be broken. With presidential and congressional elections looming in 2012, both parties see the potential rewards of working together on a popular issue like education.

On March 10, the President convened a bipartisan meeting with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the eight key Democratic and Republican members of the House and Senate whose committees and subcommittees have jurisdiction over the rewrite of the ESEA. The meeting included Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM); Republican Senators Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee; Republican Representatives John Kline of Michigan and Duncan Hunter of California, and Democratic Representatives George Miller of California and Dale E. Kildee of Michigan.

The Department of Education has encouraged states to work together to create “voluntary” common core standards. The Administration has also pressed for greater teacher accountability, charter schools, and giving greater flexibility to state and local officials. These are all potential areas of common ground with Republicans whose goal will be to reduce federal intervention in education at the state and local level.

One possible dealbreaker would be a reform bill that would require major increases in new funding for the Department of Education. House Republicans have included cuts in education programs in each of the continuing budget resolutions that have temporarily prevented a federal government shutdown. And the fiscal year 2011 funding bill (H.R. 1) that passed the House a few weeks ago cut $5 billion from the Education Department’s budget and eliminated funding for popular programs such as Head Start. That bill died in the Senate last week.

In his March 14 speech, while noting the need for deficit reduction, President Obama said, “we can’t be reckless, and we can’t be irresponsible about how we cut. We can’t cut education. We cannot cut the things that will make America more competitive.” He went on to say with regard to education cuts, “I will not let it happen.”

At this point in the process, the Senate is far ahead of the House in readying a bill for the floor. Last year, Senator Harkin, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) convened numerous hearings on various aspects of the education law. His staff has been working with Ranking Member Enzi’s staff for some time now crafting a draft bill for HELP Committee consideration. The National Coalition for History has been urging Senator’s to preserve Teaching American History grants in the final draft. Senator Harkin has repeatedly stated that he wants a bill introduced by Easter.

The change of party control in the House has stymied efforts to hold hearings and craft a bill in that body. New Chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee John Kline (R-MI) has not yet committed to a timetable for holding hearings and in the past has signaled that he prefers the passage of “targeted legislation” dealing with specific aspects of the education law rather than passage of an omnibus bill envisioned by Senate leaders. The Committee has also had to assimilate 11 new members, nearly half of the Republican majority, and bring them up to speed on the issues. In addition, the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education has a new chair, Representative Duncan D. Hunter (R-CA) who is just starting his second term in Congress.

Chairman Kline was quick to respond to the president’s call for passage of a reform bill by this fall, stating, “As we develop targeted, fiscally responsible reforms, the Committee on Education and the Workforce continues to work with school officials and state and local leaders to learn about the tools they need to prepare students for the future. We need to take the time to get this right—we cannot allow an arbitrary timeline to undermine quality reforms that encourage innovation, flexibility, and parental involvement.”

Of particular concern to historians in the ESEA reauthorization is the future of K–12 history education. The House-passed version of the continuing resolution (H.R. 1) to provide funding for the remainder of fiscal year 2011 eliminated funding for the Teaching American History (TAH) grants program. The Senate version would have continued funding TAH at the fiscal 2010 level of $119 million. Neither of these bills passed the Senate however. As a result, TAH funding for the current fiscal year that ends on September 30 remains in limbo.

On February 2, 2011, the Department of Education announced that it was inviting applications for new awards under the Teaching American History (TAH) grant program for fiscal year 2011. However, the Education Department made it clear that it was only accepting applications, “to allow enough time to complete the grant process before the end of the current fiscal year, if Congress appropriates funds for this program.” The president’s fiscal year 2012 budget request for the Department of Education was sent to Congress in February and it once again eliminates Teaching American History grants (TAH) as a separately funded program. As it did for fiscal 2011, the Administration once again proposed consolidating history education into a new program called Effective Teaching and Learning for a Well-Rounded Education.

In fiscal 2011 the administration proposed $265 million in funding for the new initiative. In fiscal 2012 that amount would be reduced to $246 million. The Effective Teaching and Learning for a Well-Rounded Education program would support competitive grants to States, high-need LEAs, and nonprofit partners to develop and expand innovative practices to improve teaching and learning of the arts, foreign languages, history, civics, economics and financial literacy, environmental education, physical education, health education, and other subjects.

Teaching American History Grants would be consolidated into this new program and would no longer exist as a free-standing budget line item. In fact, there would be no dedicated funding for any of the disciplines. In the competitive grants program, the various subjects would be pitted against each other for scarce resources. Such an approach could threaten the ability of schools and districts to provide each student with a well-rounded education, a result that seems to be the exact opposite of the intention of the Obama Administration.

The National Coalition for History has been working closely with civics groups to preserve TAH as an independent program, or at a minimum, to ensure that it receives a dedicated level of funding if it is indeed placed in the Well-Rounded Education program

Democrats and Republicans in both houses have expressed a reluctance to fund programs in fiscal 2012 based on the administration’s proposed reorganization of the Department of Education set forth in the “Blueprint for Reform.” The preference would be to fund the agency as it currently exists until Congress enacts the education reform legislation.

Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at

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