The Ohio congressman who as chairman of the House education committee helped shepherd the No Child Left Behind Act into law won a surprise election as majority leader last week.
Republican John A. Boehner, who served as chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee since January 2001, won the majority leader post on a second-ballot vote of 122-109 on Feb. 2. Mr. Boehner replaces Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who has been indicted in Texas for alleged violations of campaign-finance law and voluntarily stepped down from the leadership post.
The ascension of Rep. Boehner leaves the slot of chairman of the House education committee open. It’s likely that Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the chairman of the panel’s subcommittee on 21st century competitiveness, will get the nod.
Mr. Boehner defeated Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the majority whip and acting majority leader who had been viewed as the favorite. Rep. Boehner did it with the help of Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., who also ran for the position but came in third in the first round of balloting and then threw his weight behind the education committee chairman.
With Rep. Boehner as Republican leader, second only to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., education issues in the chamber are bound to get a higher profile.
Education is “a focus of Boehner’s, and obviously the majority leader has a lot of flexibility” and influence on agenda-setting said political scientist Larry J. Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
A Watchful Eye
Mr. Boehner played a critical role in crafting the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act, working closely with President Bush on the landmark education law. Through that process, the chairman had to overcome opposition from some conservative Republicans, who worried the law encroaches on states’ rights.
“It’s been clear since the law was signed that he takes real ownership in defending it and acting as a watchdog to make sure the Department of Education doesn’t water down the law,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president for national programs and policy at the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a conservative research and advocacy group, and a former Education Department official under President Bush.
As committee chairman, the perpetually tan, smooth-talking Mr. Boehner has run a tight ship and been a close ally of the president, steering the committee through reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in the last Congress.
Though he is known as a master politician, he has sometimes faltered. The NCLB law does not include a private school voucher provision that Mr. Boehner and other Republicans had sought. And last October, Mr. Boehner faced an unexpected defeat when some GOP committee members sided with Democrats to reject his plan to use “family education reimbursement accounts” to funnel money to schools, including private ones, taking in students displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
During the race for majority leader, Mr. Boehner painted himself as a reformer and independent thinker. The Washington Post reported on Feb. 1 that Mr. Boehner boasted to a retreat of conservative members that he had not backed President Bush in his unsuccessful push last year to expand testing, as called for in the No Child Left Behind Act, at the high school level. Currently, math and English only need be tested once at the high school level.
A New Sputnik
Rep. McKeon, a former school board member who completed his college degree at the age of 47, has a keen interest in higher education. In 2001, he pushed for streamlining the college federal aid system, and in 2003, he introduced a controversial proposal to compel colleges to hold down tuition costs by threatening to take away their federal financial-aid subsidies if they raised their rates to students too quickly.
Mr. McKeon, now 67, also has a keen interest in improving American students’ competitiveness in the global market—an issue President Bush called attention to with new math and science proposals in his State of the Union Address last week.
The congressman has lamented American students’ faltering math- and science-test scores, saying they led to lower skill levels in the global marketplace.
“This is our Sputnik,” he said at a September conference, referring to the Soviet satellite whose launch in 1957 was seen as a U.S. wake-up call for improving math and science education.
If Rep. McKeon is appointed education committee chairman, a process decided by the Republican leadership, he would be at the center of the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law, slated for 2007.
But even from his leadership perch, Rep. Boehner is sure to keep an eye on the law’s progress.
“I’ll be interested to see the role he plays in reauthorization,” said Fordham’s Mr. Petrilli. “Education will be only one small part of his portfolio going forward, but it’s important.”
Staff Writer Christina A. Samuels contributed to this report.