Rep. Gunderson Seeks New Perspective on School Debate

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In his 15-year congressional career, Rep. Steve Gunderson has earned a reputation as a thoughtful broker of bipartisan compromises. But as the primary author of a controversial education-reform package for the District of Columbia, the Wisconsin Republican is now at the center of a high-stakes, divisive debate.

The plan would for the first time allow federal funds to help students pay tuition at the public, private, or parochial school of their choice. (See related story, this page.)

"We have to break down the traditional public-private debate," Mr. Gunderson said in a telephone interview. "We have the potential here to redefine education and education reform."

Mr. Gunderson, 44, represents a rural district with more cows than people, and it is no surprise that he has focused on agricultural policy. He has worked hard to maintain mandates that schools serve whole milk in the school-lunch program.

But as a longtime member of the House panel now known as the Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, Mr. Gunderson has also been influential on a range of education issues. He has often been a pivotal backer of compromise proposals, such as one that ended the lengthy debate in 1994 over the House Title I formula. He has supported signature Clinton Administration initiatives, such as the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, and the AmeriCorps national-service program.

After the GOP took control of Congress a year ago, Mr. Gunderson characterized his proposal to merge the departments of Labor and Education as a middle ground between those who want to shut down the Education Department and those who want to preserve it.

'Political Reality'

Mr. Gunderson maintains that the contentious scholarship plan for Washington students is a compromise of sorts as well.

His participation stems from his friendship with Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., which developed in the mid-1980's, when Mr. Gunderson was a key moderate supporter of the conservative Mr. Gingrich's bid for ascendency among congressional Republicans.

When he announced that he was naming Mr. Gunderson to head a task force on the District of Columbia schools, Speaker Gingrich was already on record as favoring a voucher system for the city. Mr. Gunderson had been an opponent of such plans.

"As one who never voted for private school vouchers, I think I come to this with some credibility that others would not have," Mr. Gunderson said.

He drafted an ambitious package--addressing charter schools, teacher training, and curricular reforms--that was attached to HR 2546, the District of Columbia appropriations bill. (See Education Week, Nov. 15, 1995.)

Despite his earlier opposition, Mr. Gunderson said, he proposed a "scholarship" plan to provide "what's best for the student." But he admitted that another factor was also at work. Without such a provision, the bill would not satisfy the more conservative members of his party.

"There's a political reality," he said.

Some critics were surprised, especially after Mr. Gunderson told a local audience last May that Congress would not impose reforms without community support.

Karen Shook, the president of the District of Columbia school board, said she suspects the scholarship proposal "was more top-down."

"I don't think it was bottom-up," she said. "We clearly voiced our opposition."

School officials in Mr. Gunderson's congressional district also expressed surprise.

"If you were to ask me if I thought he'd be the point person on that I would have to say probably not," said Bob Foster, the superintendent of the Rice Lake Area School District.

Personal Politics

Mr. Gunderson's stature in the House GOP grew in the late 1980's. But what he considered the vitriolic tenor of the 1992 Republican convention led him to resign the post of chief deputy whip, which Mr. Gingrich, then minority leader, gave him in 1989. During his 1994 re-election campaign, he announced that it would be his last.

"People here see it as a loss, and kind of a disappointing loss for people concerned about the direction of government, not just a loss for this district," said Joe Heim, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

At about the same time that Mr. Gunderson announced his retirement, his personal life became an issue. He had previously avoided discussing the topic, but when conservatives attacked him for speaking to gay groups and news reports appeared, he acknowledged that he is gay.

Meanwhile, activists have complained that he is not outspoken on gay issues. Recently, they criticized his vote in favor of the District of Columbia appropriations bill because it would repeal the city's domestic-partnership law.

The lawmaker responded by asking the gay community to consider his role as the author of the school-reform package.

"I have always thought it wonderful and ironic that the only openly gay Republican would be chosen to design the package," he said in a November 1995 letter to the Washington Blade, the city's gay newspaper. "If there is better ammunition to use against the homophobic element--convinced that no one gay can be involved in our public schools--I don't know what it would be."

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