School & District Management

K-12 Champion Sets Departure From Congress

By Alyson Klein — May 11, 2010 4 min read
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The pending departure of the top lawmaker overseeing education spending in the U.S. House of Representatives—a stalwart backer of expansive federal K-12 funding—is drawing sharply divided responses from various sides of the policy landscape.

Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., who serves as the chairman of both the House Appropriations Committee and the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, said May 5 that he is retiring from Congress after nearly 42 years.

“He’s definitely one of the most tenacious and aggressive advocates” for K-12 funding, said Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition based in Washington. “He is going to be greatly, greatly missed.”

Having Mr. Obey as the chairman of both the full Appropriations Committee and the subcommittee overseeing education spending has been a boon for K-12 programs, Mr. Packer said. As the head of the full committee, Mr. Obey has been able to steer more money toward his priorities, including education. It is unlikely that the new chairman will fill both those roles, Mr. Packer said.

Still, not everyone will miss having Mr. Obey in such a powerful position.

“Representative Obey is almost a caricature of a retrograde 1970s conventional liberal,” said Michael J. Petrilli, who served in the U.S. Department of Education during President George W. Bush’s first term and is now a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington. “There was no space between him and the education establishment, which is why they are so sad to see him go. He believed in funding the status quo; his departure might allow Congress to ramp up funding for reform instead.”

Rep. Obey was first elected to the House in 1969 in a special election held after President Richard Nixon tapped then-Rep. Melvin Laird of Wisconsin to be his defense secretary. This year, Rep. Obey faced a potentially tough bid for re-election against Republican Sean Duffy, the Ashland County District Attorney.

‘Bone-Tired’

But in a statement last week explaining his decision, Rep. Obey said he was simply weary of life in Congress. He will retire at the end of this year.

“Frankly, I am bone-tired,” he said.

It was unclear last week just who would step into Mr. Obey’s shoes at the helm of the Appropriations Committee. Democratic leaders will recommend a new chairman after the November mid-term elections.

In his statement, Rep. Obey specifically cited steering more financial resources to education programs as one of the key reasons he originally ran for the House.

Rep. Obey said he wanted to “expand federal support for education in order to expand opportunity for every American. That has been a hard slog but, especially in the last three years, we have been able to move a large amount of federal resources to do just that.”

For instance, he pointed to a law that passed earlier this year that made significant changes to the federal student lending program, in part to free up additional funds for Pell Grants to help disadvantaged students attend college.

During his time on the committee, which he took over in 2007 after the Democrats took back their majority in the House, Rep. Obey has championed increased education spending, particularly for major formula programs such as Title I grants to help districts educate disadvantaged students.

And he oversaw the elimination of funding for the Reading First program, which came under fire after a series of reports by the Education Department’s inspector general suggested that conflicts of interest had occurred among officials and contractors who helped implement the program in its early years. At its peak, the program was financed at $1 billion annually.

Rep. Obey was also a key architect of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic-stimulus program, which included education aid as one of its key components.

But he was also critical of the Obama administration’s insistence that states that tap the stimulus funding make progress on certain education-redesign objectives, saying such expectations set cash-strapped school districts up for failure.

Recently, Rep. Obey expressed skepticism about the Obama administration’s fiscal 2011 budget proposal for the Department of Education, which seeks to steer new education spending toward competitive grant programs rather than major formula funds, such as Title I and special education. An economic downturn is not the right moment to emphasize competition, he said.

“In times like this, we need to worry about our core, foundational programs which go out by formula and are widely shared across the nation. A school district’s ability to attract funds should not depend on its capacity to write a grant application,” Rep. Obey told Secretary of Education Arne Duncan when the secretary testified before the appropriations panel in March.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2010 edition of Education Week as K-12 Champion Sets Departure From Congress

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