Mr. Chairman

By Joetta L. Sack — August 02, 2000 16 min read
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U.S. Rep. Bill Goodling, the GOP’s point man on education, is looking toward retirement.

Nov. 9, 1994, was a cold, frosty morning in Michigan, and like many other Democrats, veteran Rep. Dale E. Kildee had not slept well. Just a few hours earlier, Republicans had won 61 new House and Senate seats and, for the first time in 40 years, control of both chambers of Congress.That meant, Kildee realized, that his new chairman on the House Education and Labor Committee would be Rep. Bill Goodling. While the Pennsylvania Republican had spent nearly 20 years as one of the panel’s top minority-party members, few had thought he would ever lead the committee.

Even though the day had just begun, and politicians know not to call early the day after an election, Kildee knew Goodling was a farmer and would likely be awake. Sure enough, Goodling picked up the phone at 7 a.m.

“Mr. Chairman?” Kildee quipped, without identifying himself.

“How sweet it is,” Goodling sighed.

Nearly six years have passed since William F. Goodling took up the chairman’s gavel, and since that time, this former teacher, principal, superintendent, and school board president from the York, Pa., area has seen plenty of sweet victories, as well as his share of turmoil and frustration.

As he prepares for retirement later this year, the 72-year-old chairman can take pride in several decisive acts. Under his direction, laws such as the Higher Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act underwent sweeping changes, and a host of new education initiatives passed the House. He’s also spearheaded the fight for more special education funding and led successful efforts to derail several of President Clinton’s prized proposals, including a new national testing program.

But the congressional veteran will likely leave Capitol Hill on a bittersweet note because what could have been the crowning achievement of his tenure—a first-ever reauthorization of the massive Elementary and Secondary Education Act under a Republican majority in both houses—appears unlikely to happen this year.

“My greatest disappointment right now is that we passed a lot of good legislation that is sitting over there on the other side,” he says, referring to the Senate that has yet to pass its own ESEA bill or the House bills.

Still, as his days in Congress dwindle down, Goodling—and others—are focusing on his accomplishments.

“He’s probably as deeply steeped with an education background as anyone who’s ever been in Congress, particularly on the Republican side,” says Rep. Michael N. Castle, the Delaware Republican who chairs the subcommittee on early childhood and K-12 education. “He understands the needs of kids who don’t come to the classroom with the same foundation as others, ... but if he thinks a program is a wasteful expenditure, he says that publicly, no matter who gets caught in the crossfire.”

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, is even more glowing. He refers to Goodling as “the number-one educator in America.”

The man who has served as the House Republicans’ point man for education for much of the past quarter-century is known in Washington for his sometimes cantankerous personality. For instance, he and Rep. George Miller of California, a senior Democrat on what is now the Education and the Workforce Committee, are well- known for their public squabbles during committee meetings, even though they both admit they get along pretty well behind the scenes.

Stripped of his chairman’s mantle, however, Goodling offers a more complex persona: He is a deeply religious man, an accomplished pianist and singer, a softhearted animal lover, an educator who still loves to read to children, and a proud father.

En route to one of his two horse farms here in the rolling southern Pennsylvania countryside, a visitor can see traces of the Goodling legacy scattered along the way: the funeral home his late brother once owned, a school in the district where Goodling once worked as superintendent. Close by is the old family homestead where Goodling grew up. The new Goodling spread—a super- modern, stucco abode on a hill overlooking the small town of Seven Corners—is where Goodling, his wife, Hilda, and his beloved pets reside.

“Big lady, are you ready for your breakfast?” Goodling asks Mysty Canalu, one of the prized thoroughbreds in a stable just a few yards from the Goodling home, one recent summer morning.

Goodling tries to make the two-hour drive home every night, but often ends up sleeping on a cot in his office. But when he is here, Goodling is in the barn by 6 a.m. to feed and clean his horses, and talk to them.

The congressman has been an avid horse lover for as long as he can remember, and he always dreamed of owning and breeding mares. But, while his father, a fruit grower, would one day serve in Congress, Goodling grew up in a modest household in Loganville, Pa. The youngest of six children, he worked in his family’s orchard. Shortly after graduating from York’s William Penn Senior High School in 1945, he joined the U.S. Army for three years. “When I came back from the service, I wanted a horse rather than a car,” he says.

Later, he graduated from the University of Maryland and received his master’s degree in education from Western Maryland College. In the 1950s, he worked as a special education, English, and social studies teacher, a counselor, and a coach at Kennard-Dale High School in Fawn Grove, Pa., before becoming the principal of West York Area Senior High School. He also took coursework toward a Ph.D. in educational administration.

During his days in the classroom, Goodling apparently made an impression. Ralph W. Hess was in Goodling’s first homeroom class and remembers him as a strict disciplinarian—who even washed students’ mouths out with soap if they uttered a profanity—but also a well-loved teacher who genuinely cared about his students.

Goodling would often show up in the middle of the night, Hess says, if he heard that a student was sick or having a family problem. Once, he even bought a used car for a student who had a tough family life. And when Hess’ mother died and his father was having problems coping, Goodling came to their home every night to teach Hess how to cook. Goodling never smoked or drank liquor, and he strongly discouraged his students from doing so, Hess recalls.

“He went beyond the call of what we know as a teacher,” Hess says. After Goodling was appointed principal, Hess became a teacher and was hired by him. Even after Goodling went to Congress, Hess says, he still kept strong ties to his former colleagues.

In 1967, Goodling became the superintendent of the Spring Grove Area School District, also in York County. Goodling also served as a school board member and board president in the Dallastown (Pa.)Area School District in the mid-1960s.

During his days in the classroom, Goodling was a strict disciplinarian who never smoked or drank liquor.

Richard D. Gentzler, who served as the Spring Grove Area district’s business manager during that time, remembers Goodling as a popular chief who got along well both with teachers and the school board. “He was always respected very much for his honesty,” Gentzler says. “What you see is what he is.”

About 15 years ago, Goodling began breeding thoroughbreds, a hobby that tends to rack up costs more often than profits. But he says it’s much easier to manage a stable than a congressional committee. “Here, I don’t have to count votes, I always have the majority, nobody talks back, I don’t have to pound the gavel,” he says while scooping the horse dung from the stable. “And I don’t have George Miller objecting,” he jokes.

There’s no doubt he’s a passionate animal lover: He says he even stands in the middle of the field next to his house to protect grazing deer from hunters. He also donates supplies to two nearby horse-rescue organizations.

And, to make sure his 13-year-old mutt Sammy, who has had two strokes, eats well, he cooks a varying mixture of rice, hot dogs, hamburger, and cheese.

Goodling gave his son, Todd, an architect, free rein to design the Goodlings’ new house, built in a contemporary Southwestern style with a flat roof, tall chimney, and, surprisingly, no windows to take advantage of a stunning hillside view. Inside, it looks like a spread for Metropolitan Home, pristinely decorated with strong colors and textures. The house includes an area for Goodling’s baby grand piano; the chairman is a Methodist who loves to play and sing hymns, but he can sit down and perform just about any tune.

He also has an antique piano in his Capitol Hill office. He often plays it into the night when he has to sleep over, even though it is irreparably out of tune. He’s also found a better-tuned piano in the Capitol that he frequently plays for other members of Congress during their regular prayer breakfasts.

When he first ran for Congress in 1974, Goodling was the heir apparent to the seat that his father, George, had won for all but one election since 1960 in Pennsylvania’s politically conservative 19th Congressional District. Upon his election, the younger Goodling asked for a seat on what was then the Education and Labor Committee.

Sen. James M. Jeffords, the Vermont Republican who now chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, also was elected to the House in 1974. (Jeffords successfully ran for the Senate in 1988.) Jeffords remembers that the two almost immediately gained seniority on the Education and Labor Committee because they came to Congress in the wake of the Watergate scandal and heavy Republican losses at the polls. Typically, the committee’s jurisdiction did not attract many Republicans—he and Goodling were a rare breed and quickly became friends, Jeffords says.

Once considered a haven for moderate Republicans, the Education and the Workforce Committee now runs the gamut of both Democratic and Republican ideologies. While most of the more senior GOP members are moderates like Goodling, a handful of staunchly conservative members have joined in recent years.

It’s hard to peg Goodling to a specific ideology. He has sponsored conservative-backed measures such as the “Straight A’s” Act, which would instill a large degree of flexibility in using federal money in exchange for greater accountability.

But Goodling has worked with Democrats to push through education bills, and has also defended existing programs and funding. In 1984, then-U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell enlisted Goodling’s help in persuading President Reagan to override recommendations by the Office of Management and Budget that would have severely cut the education budget. Goodling has also helped fend off cuts in the school lunch program, and in 1998, he won passage of a child-nutrition bill that bears his name. He has also been a champion of federal early-childhood-education programs, including Head Start and Even Start.

It’s hard to peg Goodling to a specific ideology.

“One of the problems we had with the first 10 to 12 years of Head Start was that nobody paid attention to whether it was a quality program,” Goodling says. “A lot of times, it was being used as a job program, or babysitting.”

Lately, he’s tried to apply the same quality-control philosophy to programs such as Title I, which provides academic help for students from low-income households; President Clinton’s program to hire 100,000 new teachers and reduce class sizes; and reading and after-school initiatives.

Goodling’s approach has earned him praise, even from some more liberal lobbyists and lawmakers.

Many members of the National Education Association, the 2.4-million member teachers’ union that rarely agrees with his policy stances, have a great deal of respect for the chairman, says Diane Shust, the NEA’s manager of federal relations.

“We’ve been fortunate to have someone who understands the system,” says Shust. “He’s really committed to education and improving the system.”

“Bill Goodling’s legacy ... is an emphasis on quality in federal education and social programs,"says Miller, Goodling’s sometime-adversary and one of the committee’s top Democrats. But Miller blasts other Republicans. Much of the ESEA reauthorization “has been hijacked by the extreme wing of the Republican party,” he charges.

Goodling denies long-standing rumors that House leaders such as Armey and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich kept a close eye on his policies and placed conservative freshman members on the committee to balance the more moderate leanings of Goodling and the other senior members. Nor does Goodling believe he was ever in danger of losing his chairmanship, as some observers speculated in the early months of GOP control in 1995. Goodling also believes his years as an educator have earned him the respect of some of the younger Republicans, even if they do not always agree philosophically.

Some members, he adds, simply have not seen firsthand the challenges some students face. In York, a working-class community near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, Goodling found that many of his classmates and students came from broken or impoverished homes. Many had not received any early-childhood education and fell far behind their peers upon entering school.

But Goodling says he has drawn on his skills as a former teacher and made it his mission to educate those members about his experiences. He encourages them to visit schools in their districts as well.

“There are truly those who don’t understand what some 50 percent of these children are going through,” Goodling says. “What they consider a family doesn’t exist for these youngsters.”

One of the conservatives on the committee, Rep. Bob Schaffer, R-Colo., says Goodling has won his respect and that of other junior members, despite their differences.

“This is a thorough chairman that, more than any other chairman in Washington, does his homework before a bill comes to the floor,” Schaffer says. “The Republican members of the committee are more knowledgeable of the day-to-day issues than members of other committees.”

The challenge of running a politically diverse committee is not the most difficult Goodling has faced in his quarter-century on Capitol Hill. Up until the early 1990s, his seat was considered safe, and he encountered little or no opposition from Democratic or other Republican rivals in his home district.

Then, in 1992, came the revelation that dozens of representatives had overdrawn their accounts at the House bank, and Goodling was named as one of the top offenders. He was lambasted in the local news media and by conservative critics, actions that observers say surprised him and have left him feeling hurt and betrayed to this day.

Two sources close to Goodling who asked not to be named say the chairman’s troubles with the bank stemmed not from any questionable motives, but from a tendency not to be very organized about managing his finances.

After a U.S. Department of Justice investigation, Goodling received a letter of exoneration. But then he faced his first significant re-election challenge, in a three-way 1992 race with a conservative running as an independent, who played up the House bank imbroglio. Despite the initial scare, Goodling emerged victorious. In the 1996 and 1998 GOP primaries, he faced Charles R. Gerow, a conservative who advocated term limits. Goodling turned to Gingrich, who gave him a strong endorsement and funneled money and staff support to York. The chairman won a tight primary race in 1996, but handily beat Gerow in the 1998 GOP primary. That year, Goodling announced he was seeking his last term.

Last year, looking ahead to what was likely to be an arduous ESEA reauthorization process, Goodling decided to break up the reauthorizing legislation for the flagship federal law on K-12 education into several smaller bills, a move some observers called a smart strategy and others decried. He succeeded in passing most of the pieces—including a Title I measure that largely stayed the course with existing law, to the dismay of some more conservative members.

In recent weeks, Goodling and his Senate counterpart, Jeffords, have been working to find ways to pass parts of the plan by attaching them to the annual appropriations bills. But while it’s a popular tactic, it’s also a move that Goodling has often criticized President Clinton and other Democrats for employing.

One of his greatest frustrations, though, has been the Senate, which stalled on considering ESEA legislation while trying to work out its own internal strife between conservative and moderate GOP members and Democrats. Despite their past friendship, Goodling does not hide his frustration with Jeffords and other members of the Senate panel. Others say part of the blame lies with Goodling and his strategy of breaking the reauthorization bill into pieces.

One of Goodling’s greatest frustrations has been the Senate.

“He really does want to do the right thing in education, based on his career and his family, then the politics gets in the way,” says John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy and a former longtime aide to Democrats on the House committee. “In summary, he’s been a decent chairman, but he’s failed his greatest test of leadership.”

After Goodling’s departure, the future leadership of the panel is uncertain. If the Republicans keep the majority in the House, the honor will likely go to Rep. Tom Petri of Wisconsin, whom many predict would be a more low- key leader and less interested in education issues than Goodling. If the Democrats gain control, California’s Miller will likely be the chairman.(The only more senior Democrat on the committee, William L. Clay, D-Mo., is retiring.)

Regardless, it will be a different scene, with lots of work to finish on the ESEA, the Department of Education’s research programs, and any initiatives the new presidential administration will propose.

As for Goodling, he says his future is a “big question mark.” Some in Washington expect him to take a lobbying job, as so many former members of Congress do, but Goodling denies any such plans. “I’m not a very good lobbyist ... but it would depend on what somebody had in mind,” he adds.

He does plan to spend more time with his horses, play golf, and, he hopes, visit every Major League Baseball park in the country—an interest he shared with his father. He also wants to continue working on early-childhood-education issues.

As he prepares to pack up his office overlooking the Capitol, though, he is still savoring his accomplishments as chairman. And while he remembers Dale Kildee’s story of the day after the 1994 elections well, he has to add one of his own, in his typical come-from-behind spirit.

In the Education and Labor Committee’s last session before those pivotal elections, he says, he and Rep. William D. Ford, the Michigan Democrat who then chaired the committee, were having one of their frequent disagreements on education policy. Someone from the audience took Goodling’s side and yelled to Ford, “Wait till [Goodling] becomes chairman.”

“Ford said, ‘He’ll never live long enough to see that day,’ ” Goodling recalls with a grin. “When we took over the House, that ended 20 years of frustration.”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 02, 2000 edition of Education Week as Mr. Chairman

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