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Published in Print: October 25, 2000, as Miller Brings Independent Approach to School Concerns

Miller Brings Independent Approach to School Concerns

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When the House approved a teacher-quality bill last year that thumbed its nose at President Clinton's prized program to reduce class sizes by hiring 100,000 new teachers, most Democrats joined ranks against it.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.

Age: 55
Education: San Francisco State University, B.A., 1968. University of California, Davis, J.D., 1972.
Career: Member of Congress: 1975-present; chairman of the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, 1983-1990; ranking Democrat (and former chairman) of what is now the House Resources Committee, 1991-present. Lawyer in private practice, 1972-1974. Legislative aide to California Senate majority leader, 1969-1974.
Personal: Married, with two children and two grandchildren.

But 24 members, led by Rep. George Miller of California, crossed party lines in July of 1999 and voted for the proposed Teacher Empowerment Act. Despite the objections of their party's leadership, Mr. Miller and his colleagues argued that the bill would make important strides for teacher quality.

"We were well aware that there was going to be hell to pay, but it was worth it," he recalled in a recent interview.

That, some observers here say, is exactly the kind of political independence that defines Mr. Miller, a maverick who is in line to become either the chairman or the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, depending on which party wins the majority in the House in next month's elections. Mr. Miller is expected to win handily in his bid for a 14th House term. Known as a liberal Democrat with a passion for the issues that occasionally overtakes him, Mr. Miller is now the second-most-senior Democrat on the education panel, next to Rep. William L. Clay, D-Mo., who is retiring. Soon, Mr. Miller could be in line to make a powerful imprint on the committee and, if he has his way, on federal education policy.

School issues are familiar terrain for the congressman, who has served on the education committee—then known as Education and Labor—since he was first elected to the House with the famous "Watergate" class of 1974. He represents the East Bay area near San Francisco and has won recent elections by wide margins.

Mr. Miller is perhaps best known in the education world these days for his emphasis on teacher quality, accountability, and helping disadvantaged students, and his skeptical eye toward commercialism in schools. In another area of domestic policy, he is also a vocal advocate for tough environmental-protection measures, and currently is the senior Democrat on the House Resources Committee.

A Heated Exchange

Education lobbyists know well Mr. Miller's political skills. He has worked especially closely in the past few years with the Washington-based Education Trust, a nonprofit group that promotes higher achievement for poor and minority students. At times, they have worked together on policy initiatives that have ruffled the feathers of other national education groups. For example, they championed new requirements, included in the Higher Education Act reauthorization in 1998, for schools of education to publicly report the pass rates on teacher licensing exams—a move that was not popular with everyone in the higher education community.

"He's a terribly effective legislator who really puts the interests of kids first," said Amy Wilkins, a principal partner at the Education Trust. Mr. Miller has demonstrated "a willingness to work in a bipartisan manner, and a willingness to question the orthodoxy," she said.

Mr. Miller's passion is something many observers admire, but it has stirred tension at times. During a hearing of the Education and the Workforce Committee last year, he launched into a fiery speech criticizing witnesses he suggested were blaming the federal government for their problems.

"How about holding yourself accountable to parents?" he asked.

When his time limit expired, he kept talking. Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the committee, began tapping his gavel, and then banging it more loudly. But Mr. Miller didn't stop talking, and instead taunted the chairman: "Why don't you bang it one more time?" Mr. Goodling replied, "The next time will be on your head," and threatened to have the sergeant-at-arms remove Mr. Miller from the room. The two later apologized for the incident.

Chairman Goodling, who entered Congress the same year as Mr. Miller, is retiring after his current term. He declined comment for this story. Several other committee Republicans either declined comment or could not be reached.

Contentious interactions with the Californian can seem especially dramatic, given that Mr. Miller is a physically imposing figure, standing 6 feet 3 inches tall with the stocky build of a former football player, a sport he played in high school.

"His style might be a little daunting to some," said Charlotte J. Fraas, who served as his legislative director from 1994 to 1996. "He kind of scares people once in a while."

Ms. Fraas, now the director of federal legislation for the American Federation of Teachers, added, "He's got a lot of passion, and he's not afraid to show it."

Ms. Fraas and others emphasize Mr. Miller's interest in and knowledge of child and family issues. For instance, he was the founding chairman of the House's now-defunct Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, a nonlegislative panel that helped influence policy.

Of course, not everyone is enamored of his policy approach. His criticism of GOP efforts to step up flexibility in federal education programs has led to numerous clashes.

Gary Huggins, the executive director of the Education Leaders Council, a group of conservative-leaning state schools chiefs and other officials, said that while he respects Rep. Miller's intellectual honesty and his work in some areas—especially on the Teacher Empowerment Act—he laments what he views as the lawmaker's "disdain and distrust" for local flexibility.

"I think he thinks that state and local people are not capable of doing right by their children without being constantly watched, prodded, or guided by people in Washington," Mr. Huggins said.

Mr. Miller said his approach to federal education policy is governed by several ideas.

"I think ... you have to keep asking those core questions about results, accountability, and high standards," he said. "And I think those cut across the entire agenda." He added: "I'm not interested in a national school board, but I think the federal government has tremendous leadership capabilities."

'Tireless Advocate'

Last year, it was Mr. Miller's vote for the Republican-sponsored Teacher Empowerment Act that drew attention. The bill would have combined funding from Mr. Clinton's class-size-reduction program and several other federal initiatives into a much more flexible spending pool.

But it also contained language Mr. Miller supported that would have called on school districts to ensure that all teachers were fully qualified by 2004, and would have placed new accountability demands on states to narrow the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their better-off classmates.

While the bill now appears dead, tied up in Congress' failed effort this year to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Mr. Miller says it set the stage for modifying the class-size program. During end-game budget negotiations last year between congressional leaders and the White House, some elements of the teacher-quality language were added to the program, which has been authorized for two years in a row through the appropriations process.

Mr. Miller's interest in teacher quality and his concern about the class-size initiative trace back to his home district, where a state program to reduce class sizes has burdened some schools struggling to hire enough capable teachers.

"I think, as we found out in California, there's some wonderful benefits to class-size reduction, but just having fewer children spend time with a poorly qualified teacher is not one of them," Mr. Miller said.

Vic Klatt, who until recently served as the education policy coordinator for Republicans on the House education committee, said Mr. Miller's actions put principle over politics.

"I know very well that he was under a tremendous amount of pressure from fellow Democrats and the White House to stick with the president's proposal," said Mr. Klatt, who is now a vice president at Van Scoyoc Associates Inc., a Washington lobbying firm.

Republican leaders on the committee know the value of getting Mr. Miller on their side, Mr. Klatt added. "In general, we looked at him as probably one of our strongest, if not the strongest, adversaries ... and we often made special efforts to get him on our side," he said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., who also serves on the education committee, said she looks forward to seeing her Golden State colleague taking a top position on the panel.

"He's a tireless advocate for children," Ms. Woolsey said. "He has been his entire career."

"I think he has respect across the board," she added.

Vol. 20, Issue 8, Pages 33,38

Related Stories
Web Resources
  • Read a short history of the Committee on Education and the Workforce and the members who have served as chairman.
  • A brief biography of Mr. Miller along with his Education Page.
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