School & District Management

Harkin’s New Hat Boosts His Sway Over K-12

By Alyson Klein — September 09, 2009 4 min read

Now that U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa has stepped into the chairmanship of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, he will have broad authority over both policy and money for education issues in the Senate. That puts him in a powerful position as Congress prepares to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

As the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending, Sen. Harkin—who will give up his post as the chairman of the chamber’s Agriculture Committee—already has significant say on K-12 spending and policy. He had a lead role in securing some $100 billion for education in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic-stimulus bill that passed in February.

The five-term Democrat’s dual chairmanship means that there will likely be less of a disconnection between education policy and financing, said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy organization in Washington. “Most people don’t realize that once Congress passes a law, ... you have to go through a whole process again” to get the programs funded, said Mr. Jennings, a former longtime education aide to House Democrats.

Sen. Harkin, who will be stepping into the position left vacant by the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., will also play a central role in writing health-care-overhaul legislation, the top domestic priority of the Obama administration. His move to the top spot on the education and health committee came after Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, the committee’s top-ranking Democrat, decided to stick with the chairmanship of the Senate Banking Committee.

Supporter of Schooling

Sen. Harkin has been a champion for students in special education, working closely on various versions of the IDEA and the Americans With Disabilities Act.

He also has been a supporter of physical exercise and child health as a component of education, having tried unsuccessfully to push through a bill that would have boosted the nutritional standards for food in school vending machines.

“He’s very engaged, very energetic,” said Edward Long, who served as a top aide to the senator and is now a vice president of Van Scoyoc Associates, a lobbying firm in Washington. “Once he’s committed [to a policy], he is very rigorous and persistent in pursuing it.”

Sen. Harkin hails from a state with a strong tradition of local control that was one of the last to adopt statewide standardized testing. In 2001, he voted to support the No Child Left Behind Act—the current name for the esea, which was first enacted in 1965—but it’s less clear what his views have been on the law’s implementation, Mr. Jennings said.

Although Sen. Harkin was very supportive of Sen. Kennedy’s work on K-12 issues, “he’s not as much a known entity on education reform” as the late Massachusetts Democrat, Mr. Jennings said. But, he added, “he will be a very strong chairman. This is good news for education.”

Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a free-market-oriented think tank in Washington, said he sees Sen. Harkin as “more of a traditional Democrat on education issues” than Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee and an author of the NCLB law.

Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-founder of Education Sector, a think tank in Washington, said Sen. Harkin is likely to see eye-to-eye with the administration on issues such as early-childhood education, special education, and school construction.

But he questioned how willing Sen. Harkin would be to go along with Mr. Obama’s views on merit pay for teachers and charter schools.

“He hasn’t been a vocal supporter of the accountability aspects of No Child Left Behind,” said Mr. Rotherham, who served as a White House aide during the Clinton administration. That could change, he added, as Sen. Harkin steps into a new leadership role.

Budget Brakes

But Mr. Hess said that, as chairman, Sen. Harkin could provide a check on the administration’s agenda. The Iowa Democrat “is certainly more likely to be a speed bump than Dodd” would have been, he said.

In his role at the helm of the education spending panel of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Harkin has been somewhat skeptical of some of the administration’s budget proposals.

For example, his panel rejected the president’s plan to shift $1 billion to the Title I school improvement program, which helps overhaul schools struggling to meet the goals of the NCLB law, from Title I grants to districts for programs to help disadvantaged students. At the same time, Sen. Harkin is seeking to create a $700 million federal school facilities grant program. The bill is pending.

Earlier this year, Sen. Harkin voted for an amendment to the same bill that would have increased by $100 million funding for the Teacher Incentive Fund to over $300 million in the original bill for 2010. The program gives grants to districts to create pay-for-performance programs and is a top priority for the Obama administration.

But before supporting the boost, Sen. Harkin added language to the bill that would require the programs to be designed with teacher input. The amendment was ultimately defeated.

Recently, Sen. Harkin reintroduced a bill calling for mandatory full funding of the federal share of the IDEA. That bill—a perennial priority for the Iowa lawmaker—could gain traction now.

Sen. Harkin’s new post, “adds a lot of momentum to our cause,” said Mary A. Kusler, the assistant director of policy and advocacy at the American Association of School Administrators, in Arlington, Va.

A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as Harkin New Chair of Senate Education Committee


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