School & District Management

GOP Players in Congress Step Forward on K-12

By Alyson Klein — January 29, 2013 5 min read
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Two Republicans have ascended to key education roles in a Congress with a lot on its plate when it comes K-12 policy and spending: U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has a long record on school issues, and Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana, a relative newcomer to Washington.

Sen. Alexander was selected this month as the ranking Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, where he could play a pivotal part in bringing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the Democratic Senate and White House together on a bipartisan reauthorization of the long-stalled Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Mr. Alexander is arguably more conservative than the panel’s previous top Republican, Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., who had a close working relationship with the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who had chaired the committee. More recently, Mr. Enzi was the co-author of a bipartisan ESEA-renewal bill with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the education committee’s current chairman.

Like Mr. Enzi, Sen. Alexander has a history of working across the political aisle—he partnered, for example, with then-Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, on the America Competes Act of 2007, which bolstered math and science education. But in recent years, he’s been skeptical of a strong federal role in areas such as school improvement.

Mr. Alexander brings distinct experience to his role, having served as U.S. secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. During his two-year tenure, he helped press for national standards in core academic subjects and a $500 million federal voucher plan, which was not enacted. And as governor of Tennessee from 1979 to 1987, he made education policy a cornerstone of his time in office, championing such measures as merit pay and career ladders for teachers in the early 1980s.

Updated Roster

The 113th Congress has kicked off in earnest, with some new—and some familiar—faces on the U.S. Senate and House education committees. Partisan control of Congress remains split, with Democrats holding a majority in the Senate and Republicans having the edge in the House.

Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee

Tom Harkin, Iowa (chairman)
Barbara A. Mikulski, Md.
Patty Murray, Wash.
Robert Casey, Pa.
Kay Hagan, N.C.
Al Franken, Minn.
Michael F. Bennet, Colo.
Sheldon Whitehouse, R.I.
Tammy Baldwin, Wis.*
Chris Murphy, Conn.*
Elizabeth Warren, Mass.*

Bernie Sanders, Vt.

Lamar Alexander, Tenn. (ranking member)
Mike Enzi, Wyo.
Richard Burr, N.C.
Johnny Isakson, Ga.
Rand Paul, Ky.
Orrin Hatch, Utah
Pat Roberts, Kan.
Lisa Murkowski, Alaska
Mark Kirk, Ill.
Tim Scott, S.C.*

House Education and Workforce Committee

John Kline, Minn. (chairman)
Thomas E. Petri, Wis.
Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, Calif.
Joe Wilson, S.C.
Virginia Foxx, N.C.
Tom Price, Ga.
Kenny Marchant, Texas
Duncan Hunter, Calif.
David “Phil” Roe, Tenn.
Glenn “GT” Thompson, Pa.
Tim Walberg, Mich.
Matt Salmon, Ariz.
Brett Guthrie, Ky.
Scott DesJarlais, Tenn.
Todd Rokita, Ind.
Larry Bucshon, Ind.
Trey Gowdy, S.C.
Lou Barletta, Pa.
Martha Roby, Ala.
Joseph J. Heck, Nev.
Susan Brooks, Ind.*
Richard Hudson, N.C.*
Luke Messer, Ind.*

George Miller, Calif. (ranking member)
Robert Andrews, N.J.
Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, Va.
Rubén Hinojosa, Texas
Carolyn McCarthy, N.Y.
John F. Tierney, Mass.
Rush D. Holt, N.J.
Susan A. Davis, Calif.
Raúl Grijalva, Ariz.
Timothy H. Bishop, N.Y.
Dave Loebsak, Iowa
Joe Courtney, Conn.*
Marcia Fudge, Ohio
Jared Polis, Colo.*
Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, Delegate, Northern Mariana Islands*
John Yarmuth, Ky.*
Frederica Wilson, Fla.*
Suzanne Bonamici, Ore.*

* Denotes members who did not serve on the committee during the previous Congress.

SOURCES: House Education and Workforce Committee; Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee

Sen. Alexander wasn’t in Congress when the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001. He initially lent rhetorical support to some aspects of the law, but soured on it as a whole, as did many in Washington.

Recently, he has put increased energy behind a push, which he favored as governor, to give the federal government broader authority in funding Medicaid, which helps cover the cost of health services for low-income people, in exchange for giving states much more control over K-12 spending and policy.

“The federal government can set broad goals, but the secretary of education should not become a national school board chairman instructing 100,000 public schools how to achieve those goals or deciding whether each of those schools and its teachers are succeeding or failing,” wrote Mr. Alexander in a Commentary essay for Education Week last year, as part of a package of opinion pieces marking the 10th anniversary of the NCLB law.

Mr. Alexander was one of just three Republicans to support a bipartisan ESEA-renewal bill that passed the Senate education committee in 2011—but not before making big changes to the measure. He was able to strip language from the legislation that would have called for states to design teacher evaluations based in part on student outcomes because he believes it is not the federal government’s job to require such policies.

And, during the panel’s markup of the bill, he persuaded his colleagues to adopt new language that would allow states to opt out of the four controversial turnaround models created under the federal School Improvement Grant program and instead select their own turnaround options.

Sen. Alexander outlined some of his priorities for the new Congress in a speech on the Senate floor this month. They included making changes to “maintenance of effort,” a provision in education laws such as the ESEA and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that requires school districts to keep their own spending at a certain level in order to tap federal funds.

And he made it clear he still wants the federal government to steer clear of mandating new teacher evaluations, even though Republican leaders on the House education committee support such a requirement.

Also on the Senate side, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, a longtime member of the Senate education panel, and a former social worker with an interest in mental-health issues, is taking over as chairwoman of the full Appropriations Committee, where she’ll have significant say over spending in areas including education.

Sen. Mikulski is also the leader of a Senate panel that deals with education policy, a subcommittee of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

Conservative Shift

Meanwhile, the selection of Rep. Rokita to oversee the House education subcommittee on K-12 policy gives the Indiana Republican a prime opportunity to influence the direction of the long-delayed ESEA reauthorization and other pending education legislation. Last winter, when the House education committee marked up bills for renewing the ESEA law, Mr. Rokita stood out as one of the most conservative members of a very conservative group of lawmakers. He introduced an amendment to reduce the number of employees in the U.S. Department of Education, which was added to the bill.

What’s more, he put forth—then withdrew—a potentially game-changing provision that would have allowed states to opt out of federal education programs and return the money to taxpayers.

Mr. Rokita explained his philosophy on the federal role in an email last week to Education Week, saying that the Education Department runs more than 80 K-12 programs, most of which he considers duplicative or ineffective.

“The answer is not more money or more programs,” he wrote. “Even though federal funding has tripled since 1965, student achievement has not improved. We can do better by restoring local control and allowing reform to happen from the bottom up, instead of forcing it from the top down.

Rep. Rokita, who as a former Indiana secretary of state has a lot of political experience, was elected to Congress in 2010 as part of a conservative wave that returned the House of Representatives to GOP control.

During his two years so far on Capitol Hill, Mr. Rokita hasn’t sponsored any education bills. But he’s co-sponsored quite a few, including a bipartisan piece of charter school legislation that passed the House and a bill to slim down the Education Department by eliminating more than 40 programs.

He’s also supported the proposed A-Plus Act, which would allow states to opt out of federal accountability measures, and a bill to make English the official language of the United States, which could have implications for the education of English-language learners.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2013 edition of Education Week as GOP Players in Congress Step Forward on K-12


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