Impending Retirements Shape ESEA Debate
The upcoming departures of some influential policymakers and the impending re-election campaigns of others could lend a new urgency to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year.
Several mainstays of federal education policy in the 1990s will leave office after the 2000 elections, from President Clinton and Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley to the majority and minority leaders of the House education committee. And several key senators are facing re- election battles in November and hope to cite passage of the ESEA reauthorization among their achievements during an election cycle in which education is again expected to be a popular theme.
Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the Education and the Workforce Committee, has shepherded through most of the GOP's education legislation in the House for the past decade—first as the ranking minority member on the panel and later as its chairman. But having decided to retire rather than seek a 14th term in Congress, the chairman now has his first—and only—chance to guide the renewal of the nation's main K-12 education law.
According to aides, Mr. Goodling—a veteran public school teacher and administrator before his first election in 1974—very much wants his work on the ESEA to figure prominently in his 25-year House legacy.
"He is very determined to get that done [in 2000], which is going to take a good chunk of work," said Becky Campoverde, the spokeswoman for Republicans on the committee.
Meanwhile, Mr. Goodling's Democratic counterpart on the panel, ranking minority member Rep. William L. Clay, D-Mo., has also announced his retirement, and Republican committee members James M. Talent of Missouri, David M. McIntosh of Indiana, and Matt Salmon of Arizona have also said they will not seek re-election to the House. Mr. Talent and Mr. McIntosh are running for governor in their respective states. Another committee member, Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., D-Tenn., is considering a run for the Senate against Republican Sen. Bill Frist.
Political analysts are predicting that the GOP could lose seats in the House and the Senate in November, with its control of the House seen as especially tenuous. That prospect suggests Republicans will be anxious to finish the bill, both to enhance their record for the fall campaign and to put their stamp on the ESEA while they have the chance. Further, given that the Clinton administration will disband in early 2001, there is reason for executive-branch players to want the ESEA debate to play out sooner rather than later.
"The symbolic value of this bill is really important for everybody," said Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators. "The House and Senate bills always have significant differences, but this year, I don't think those differences are insurmountable at all."
Many congressional candidates will not want to campaign in their home districts with a major education bill unfinished, added Scott Fleming, the Department of Education's assistant secretary for legislation and congressional affairs. "This issue is going to be front and center," he said.
But other substantive issues will also be on Congress' plate this year, such as Social Security, patients' rights, and gun control, said Arnold F. Fege, the president of Public Advocacy for Kids, a nonprofit consulting firm, and longtime lobbyist. Given a tight pre-election legislative schedule and differences within the Senate education committee, he said, finishing the reauthorization could prove difficult.
"It's at best 50-50," he predicted, taking a contrarian stance.
On the Senate side, the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee is further behind than its House counterpart and has yet to release an ESEA proposal— the House panel began releasing components of its proposal last summer. Last fall, Sen. James M. Jeffords, the Vermont Republican who chairs the panel, squared off against more conservative members of the committee and issued a proposal of his own that would stay the course with current law and reject many conservative initiatives.
Nina Shokraii Rees, the education policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, said conservative members of Congress have largely divided into two groups: mavericks who want to radically alter the law and those who want to work toward a compromise. She predicted that the upcoming elections would put greater pressure on the committee members to work out a compromise plan soon and pass it in coming months.
"The goal there is to have one big plan they're going to push through committee and get to the [Senate] floor" quickly, she said.
No major Senate education policymakers are planning to retire. But several notable senators are facing re-election.
Mr. Jeffords, for instance, will face a Democratic challenger next fall in a race many observers expect to be competitive, given that he only narrowly won his 1994 re- election bid. However, he will not face Independent Rep. Bernard Sanders, who decided late last year not to seek election to the Senate. Mr. Sanders, who generally votes with the Democrats in the House, would likely have given Mr. Jeffords a run for his money.
Apart from the campaign trail, Mr. Jeffords, considered one of the most liberal Republicans in the Senate, could face some opposition to keeping his committee chairmanship. Something of a renegade in GOP circles, he has riled some conservatives with his lack of support for such initiatives as allowing federally funded vouchers for students in poor-peforming schools that receive Title I funding.
Republicans, though, would run some risks in removing Mr. Jeffords, said John F. Jennings, the director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy and a former aide to House Democrats. For instance, Mr. Jennings said, Mr. Jeffords could begin voting with Democrats or even switch his party affiliation.
Meanwhile, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the committee's ranking Democrat, is seeking his eighth term in the Senate and is expected to have a relatively easy race. Other panel members facing re-election include Mr. Frist of Tennessee and Sens. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.
Lobbyists are also keeping a close eye on the White House as the Clinton administration winds down.
The Education Department is banking on Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley—backed by Mr. Clinton's veto power—to work with congressional lawmakers until the reauthorization is completed, Mr. Fleming said.
Mr. Clinton's record of engagement in education issues throughout his career suggests his clout will continue this year, several observers said.
"He's not going to be a do-nothing president," Mr. Jennings said. "He's not inconsequential because he cares about these issues."
Vol. 19, Issue 19, Pages 24,26