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Education Chairmen Rise in Stature in Statehouses

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In 1987, Representative Roger C. Noe of Kentucky sought to make the move from his post as chairman of the House Education Committee to what seemed then a considerably more powerful job--the state superintendency of education.

Mr. Noe lost his bid for the elective post by the tantalizingly narrow margin of less than 1 percent of the popular vote.

Looking back, however, Mr. Noe wonders if the defeat might not have been one of the best things ever to happen to his political career.

For, by staying as chairman of the education committee, Mr. Noe would soon find himself in the right place to play a central role in launching the most far-reaching state school-restructuring effort yet undertaken.

When a 1989 Kentucky Supreme Court decision declared the state's entire education system unconstitutional, it thrust the task of overhauling every aspect of the schools into the legislature's lap--and, to a great extent, into Mr. Noe's.

"The standing joke was that I lucked out by losing the race, that I had in essence taken over the leadership position," Mr. Noe said.

In the wake of the court decision, Mr. Noe helped write the 1,000-page education-reform law passed by the legislature last year, increase the state budget for schools by $1 billion, and alter the structure of education governance at every level.

One part of the bill stripped the state superintendent's office of all but nominal authority, transferring its power to a new appointed post of state education commissioner.

Experts on state education policy say that Mr. Noe is just one of many education-committee chairmen who have seen their power, responsibilities, and stature increase significantly as a result of pressure on legislatures from the public and the courts to bring about major education reforms.

"The education chairmanship was the chairmanship of the 1980's," Mr. Noe said, adding that his committee is regarded as more powerful than any other in the Kentucky legislature, except for the committee on appropriations and revenue.

The continuing push to improve the schools and the existence of lawsuits challenging the school-finance systems of at least two dozen states are likely to keep education-committee chairmen in positions of power throughout the 1990's, predicted John L. Myers, director of the education program of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"You are not going anywhere in a state unless you work with the education-committee chairs," said Eugene H. Wilhoit, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

"In a lot of cases where governors have gotten notoriety for education reform, they still rely on the education-committee chairmen to carry any major initiatives," Mr. Wilhoit said.

The growing influence of the education chairmanships is also bringing about a change in the type of lawmakers who hold the posts, analysts say. Once the preserve of senior members who were content to focus on education issues, the chairmanships have become increasing attractive to younger, ambitious legislators who see the position as a possible springboard to higher office.

Education-committee chairmen also have moved to expand their collective clout. The Education Commission of the States and the nc.s.l. have been encouraging the chairmen to collaborate with their counterparts in other states, as well as the chairmen of other committees in their own legislatures, as a means of gaining public support and staying informed on new developments in the field of education.

Both national organizations are involved in the fourth annual meeting of education-committee chairmen, which is scheduled to be held in Atlanta next week.

Legislators and legislative experts point to several factors behind the influence of education-committee chairmen.

Within the legislatures, the views of education chairmen often are given exceptional respect out of recognition that they may be the only members to thoroughly understand education policy and the complex formulas governing school finance, noted Chris Pipho, director of state relations for the ecs

"The rest of the legislators wait for a printout of what is happening to their districts and act accordingly," Mr. Pipho said.

Once the chairmen produce a major education reform with their names attached, their image among their colleagues often improves and puts them in a stronger position in coming legislative decisions, noted Senator Ronald E. Withem of Nebraska, who heads the education committee in that state's unicameral legislature.

Mr. Withem last year pushed through a major school-finance bill and then was able to muster enough votes to override Gov. Kay A. Orr's veto.

Mr. Withem also managed to win re-election last fall, despite a frequent tendency on the part of Cornhusker State voters to defeat their education-committee chairmen.

Mr. Pipho observed that Mr. Withem's victory signals a tendency by voters nationally to be less harsh on legislators who enact controversial reforms and to realize that "when you try to reform education and try to reform funding for it, you aren't going to make everyone happy.''

Legislatures in general and education-committee chairmen in particular also have been able to exert a significant level of control over education policy as a result of inaction by other governing bodies.

That has been the case in Kansas, according to Senator Joseph C. Harder, who has served as chairman of his chamber's education committee for the past 22 years. The legislature "has more influence on education policy because there has been a lack of leadership from the state board of education and other entities," Mr. Harder said, and "no unanimity or agreement" among the state's major education organizations.

In Kentucky, Texas, and New Jersey, Mr. Myers said, state supreme court rulings striking down all or part of the educational system have had the effect of undermining those who would resist change and giving key legislators opportunities to pass major reform bills that may address issues beyond the scope of the courts' rulings.

"What the supreme court decisions did," Mr. Myers said, "was raise the ante, raise the stakes, raise the interest and support for major change."

Before the Kentucky Supreme Court ruling, "we had authority, but we had not had the public support we needed," Mr. Noe recalled. "We had all of the special-interest groups pulling us in one direction or another."

"With the supreme court ruling," Mr. Noe said, "everything was repealed, and we had the opportunity to start fresh."

The rising prestige of the education chairman has had the effect of making the post more desirable to ambitious politicians with long-term plans for higher office, Mr. Myers observed.

"Historically," he said, "education-committee chairs were there for a long period of time, and they became specialists in education. Very rarely did we see those people move up to become leaders in the legislature or leaders outside of the legislature, to run for higher office. We are starting to see that change."

"If you look nationally at the major political races, people are running to be the education leaders and adding education leadership to their resume," Mr. Myers said. "Education-committee chairs have that on their resume, and that's helpful."

The list of current or former education-committee chairmen who have sought higher office includes Representative Brian Ebersole of Washington State, now House majority leader; Senator Larry Murphy of Iowa, now assistant majority leader; former Assemblyman James J. Spinello of Nevada, who ran unsuccesfully for Nevada's Secretary of State; and former Assemblyman Jose E. Serrano of New York, who was elected to the U.S. House in a special election last year.

Mr. Myers said the tendency of experienced, senior education chairmen to be replaced by ambitious junior legislators is likely to be strengthened by term-limitation measures, which passed recently in California, Colorado, and Oklahoma and appear likely to be placed on the ballots in other states.

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