Couple Of Beltway Outlets Accurately Reported How ESSA “Sausage” Got Made, Says Hill Insider

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Screengrab of Politico story from last Friday.

Over the past week, there have been at least two in-depth attempts to explain what went on behind the scenes leading up to last week’s somewhat unanticipated bill-signing ceremony:

In Morning Consult, Fawn Johnson reported How Old-School Legislating Brought an Education Bill to the Finish Line.

At Politico, Maggie Severns wrote How Congress finally killed No Child Left Behind.

Stories like these can be important because they help advocates, educators, and the public understand how things work — when they work — on Capitol Hill, and what factors shaped the final result. They are doing what all journalism aims to do, to some extent, which is to explain how the sausage gets made.

That is, assuming the accounts are accurate. 

The good news in this instance is that, according to at least one senior staffer who worked closely on the legislation, this and other media coverage of the just-enacted ESSA federal education law has generally been strong:

“Both of those pieces were well done and well-written,” according to the person we’ll call Staffer X, noting that there had been “unusually good reporting about the key last minutes [as the final processes were taking place].”

In addition, Staffer X praised the education team at EdWeek, the Washington Post’s Lyndsey Layton, and the NYT’s Motoko Rich.

While extremely anecdotal, this kind of praise from inside – let’s call this person Staffer X — is very good news, considering the complexity of the process and the resulting statute, and the many other challenges that education journalists face covering fast-moving news.

The gist of the Politico and Morning Consult pieces was that the enactment of ESSA was the surprise product of a strong working relationship between Senators Murray and Alexander, the departure of embattled House leader John Boehner, and some last-minute wiggling and shimmying on the part of the White House and the civil rights groups focused on accountability.

One of the most interesting elements is the description of the no-veto agreement that Senator Alexander asked of President Obama.

As described in Politico:

“During a January trip to Tennessee on Air Force One for the announcement of a community college initiative, for example, Alexander explained his plan to the president, and made a request: He didn’t want the president to threaten to veto the bill he was negotiating with Murray. The president agreed, Alexander said. Six months later, when a bill came to the Senate floor that was in conflict with the administration’s priorities, the White House stopped short of a veto threat.”

The no-veto promise wasn’t a secret but wasn’t widely reported in the press, according to Staffer X.

The only angle that might not have gotten fully reported, according to Staffer X, was the differences between what the USDE under Arne Duncan was pushing and what the White House was focusing on. Efforts by Team Duncan to influence the process include approaching Senators other than Murray and Alexander to try and encourage them to get involved. They stopped short of going public in any obvious ways with concerns about the shape or direction the legislation was taking.

According to Staffer X, this kind of distance between a White House and Cabinet department isn’t all that unusual. What stood out was the “emphatic and personal” nature of the requests being conveyed by the Department. “What was unusual was how strident the Department was trying to be, and how regularly the White House had to step and tamp them down.”A few times, according to X, the Department tried to “rile up” other senators (like Warren and Booker) who were not part of the conversation, a move that wasn’t entirely welcome – and may not have worked.

To be sure, this is just one staffer’s perspective on things. White House and USDE observers might see it very differently, as might staffers from a different party or House of Congress.

And of course, X is one of many who are feeling good about the bill that got passed, the result of hard work and some fortunate timing. Opponents of the final version, or critics of the result, might have a much different perspective. (Text me!)

It also helps that there isn’t much disagreement about what happened or who got what. “There’s a general consensus: everybody feels like they got what they needed,” says X, who spoke to me on the phone the other morning. “Everybody knows what got and what they conceded.”

This kind of politics/process journalism isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Some journalists and outlets consider it gossipy or irrelevant, rather than deeply insight-providing. To be sure, both Politico and Morning Consult are particularly Beltway-oriented publications. You could imagine Politics K-12 or the Washington Post doing something along these lines, but not many other outlets. (EdWeek has produced a number of pieces including this explainer. I haven’t seen anything along these lines from the Washington Post.)

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.