Educators Keep Tabs on Leadership Turmoil

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Some education groups are hoping a change in the House leadership will offer them more opportunities to advance their agendas in the next Congress.

Republicans were slated to meet this week to decide which of their colleagues will lead the House through the upcoming 106th Congress. The House will definitely get a new speaker, its top officer; in addition, the majority leadership, other posts in the gop conference, and several key chairmanships could also change hands.

The result could have a significant impact on federal education policy, depending on the priorities of the new leaders and their willingness to work with Democrats and outside groups.

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's surprise Nov. 6 announcement that he would resign set off the leadership turmoil. The Georgian's decision came three days after the Republicans lost five seats in the House in the midterm elections, but clung to a narrow majority. Rep. Robert L. Livingston, R-La., quickly emerged as the front-runner for the speaker's job.

The teachers' unions and other education groups see the departure of Mr. Gingrich as a victory, and they expect that Mr. Livingston would be more open to discussing their ideas.

"What Mr. Livingston brings to that office is a reputation for reaching out and working in a bipartisan fashion," said Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the director of government relations for the 2.4 million-member National Education Association.

Others, however, caution not to expect drastic change. "We don't think the changes in leadership will have any effect on what we're doing," said Bill McCarthy, a spokesman for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Committee leaders' priorities will continue to be getting more federal dollars to local schools, enhancing local control, and increasing parental involvement, he said.

Hands-on Approach

Rep. Livingston is described as less charismatic and colorful than the ever-quotable Mr. Gingrich, but also more of a hands-on manager willing to work out compromises.

Mr. Livingston, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, doesn't yet have a specific education agenda, although he has worked to send more federal money to local districts, said Elizabeth Morra, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the Appropriations Committee. He has also supported revamping bilingual education and amending special education law to give administrators more power in placing disabled students.

Derrick Max, the director of government relations for the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, predicted that Mr. Livingston would be more open to Democratic ideas, including President Clinton's proposals to pay for the hiring of new teachers and for in terest on school construction bonds. Both were strongly opposed by Mr. Gingrich, although Congress passed a fiscal 1999 budget with $1.2 billion to help districts hire 30,000 teachers in the coming school year.

Mr. Max added that more conservative measures--such as publicly funded vouchers for private education--may also lose the momentum they had gained in the House, which approved a limited plan for vouchers in the District of Columbia schools this year. That plan later died.

"By all accounts, [Mr. Livingston] is much more moderate and more willing to deal to get the trains to run on time," Mr. Max said.

He noted, however, that having a good manager in the speaker's office could help the conservatives find a way to push through their legislation.

Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Washington-based Committee for Education Funding, pointed out that Mr. Livingston supported a Gingrich initiative in 1995 that rescinded some education funding.

But, "in the last three years, he's been willing to deal with the political realities to get funding passed and signed by the president, and that's resulted in big increases for education," said Mr. Kealy, whose organization lobbies for increased education spending.

As of last week, Mr. Livingston's only announced rival for the speakership had withdrawn from the race. If Mr. Livingston does become speaker, Rep. C. W. Bill Young, R-Fla., will be next in line to take the reins of the Appropriations Committee. But that ascension could be challenged by other members.

Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, who sponsored the unsuccessful Washington voucher plan, also has competition for his job as House majority leader. A range of contenders surfaced last week, including Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla., whose credentials include a strong appeal among conservative Christians, and Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., who chairs the subcommittee on higher education.

Key K-12 Post

At the same time, members of one education panel are jockeying for position as well. The chairmanship of the House Early Childhood, Youth, and Families Subcommittee--which was vacated by retiring Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif.--is still "very much up in the air," said Mr. McCarthy of the Education and the Workforce Committee.

The decision could be made during the House GOP meeting scheduled for Nov. 18, or it could be announced as late as January, when the new Congress convenes.

It's a low-profile, but plum, assignment because the subcommittee will guide legislation for the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main federal K-12 law. Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the Education and the Workforce Committee, is also known for giving subcommittee chairs great leeway in writing legislation. During his tenure, for example, Mr. Riggs sponsored several noteworthy initiatives on charter schools, bilingual education, and vouchers for low-income students.

Last week, the top contenders appeared to be Reps. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., and Mark Souder, R-Ind. Some members also hope to persuade Mr. McKeon, who successfully navigated a compromise bill amending the Higher Education Act through the House this year, to vie for the seat.

Mr. Castle, who is next in line in seniority, is a moderate who has repeatedly angered some conservatives with his centrist views. Mr. Souder, a proponent of Mr. Gingrich's agenda and the leader of the 1994 freshman GOP class that brought Republicans to a majority, is closely aligned with conservative education groups and supports vouchers and block grants.

"If Souder gets it, we'll probably spend a lot of time fighting instead of talking about how to reform education," predicted Bruce Hunter, a senior associate executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators.

Vol. 18, Issue 12, Pages 15-16

Published in Print: November 18, 1998, as Educators Keep Tabs on Leadership Turmoil
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