VIDEO: Bennet implores senate not to play politics with education reform

Colorado US Senator Michael Bennet seems to love his job as much as he hates the senate. That is, he seems to relish the opportunity to make change that matters as much as he reviles the fact that senate rules and procedures and politics work against anyone making any kind of change at all. On Wednesday he said something just like that but more eloquently in a speech on the Senate floor, when Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a libertarian Republican, invoked one of the chamber’s myriad arcane rules to stall debate on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, legislation Bennet has helped write and that would remake the controversial “No Child Left Behind” act.

“I haven’t been here a long time and I’ve spent a lot of time complaining about how the place works,” Bennet said, pacing at the podium, his voice rising, his hands at times folded in front of him modeling a posture of frustrated restraint. “I implore the senator from Kentucky to reconsider his objection [to continued debate]… Finally, after two and a half years, there’s a bipartisan piece of legislation in front of the committee and we’re told that meeting for two hours is too long…

“You know why people are fed up this place? It’s because they don’t think the debate we’re having is about them. They think the debate we’re having is about us. And they’re right about that.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act would remove the yearly progress reports mandated by the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act. It would also lift penalties imposed on schools that fail to meet annual standards set by No Child Left Behind, focusing accountability on only the lowest performing schools.

Indeed, the bill seeks in general to lower federal involvement in education, a proposal normally likely to draw the support of small-government lawmakers like Paul.

“The teachers all across this state want us to lift this burden from them, in my view the biggest federal overreach ever in domestic policy,” Bennet said. “That’s what this bill does, not for ideological reasons, but to respond to the voices of our teachers, respond to the voices of our superintendents.

“[The bill] responds to the voices of our parents who are sick and tired of the almost comical but to them painful measures of annual progress, the idea that we’re going to label all of our schools failing by 2014 because we have a completely made up accountability system in Washington DC. This bill does away with that!”

The remarks came during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee markup session, a session where committee members amend and rewrite legislation. Bennet was superintendent of the Denver public school system before being appointed to the senate in 2009 and he seems to prize his work for the HELP committee and his work on this bill in particular.

Senator Paul, who won his seat in the Tea Party wave election last November, expressed frustration that he didn’t have time enough to fully consider the roughly 800-page bill. He derided the process as unrealistic and said the public had been locked out of the debate.

Committee Chairman Tom Harkin from Iowa pointed out in response that the committee held ten public hearings on the legislation in 2010 and that the bill had been in the works for years. As a HELP committee member, Paul could have taken time since assuming office to familiarize himself with the legislation, he said.

Bennet told Paul that while they were dithering over politicized chamber rules, teachers were at work in Colorado, at 11:15 pm, preparing for classes.

“When people see the political games that are being played here, when they see people who are unwilling to work together and they are killing themselves to deliver for our kids, I’m not sure there’s anything more backhanded we could do.”

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