The new chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee said last week that he plans to do a lot of listening when it comes to the No Child Left Behind Act.
Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., who was named chairman of the education panel on Feb. 15 by the House Republican Conference, said he plans to hold hearings on the education law, both in Washington and around the country, as well as roundtable discussions to seek bipartisan input before its scheduled reauthorization next year.
“I’d like to hear from the people at the local level—what successes they’ve had, failures or problems, and hear what they think would make it better,” he said in an interview Feb. 15. “I like the idea of getting a lot of feedback … [with roundtable discussions] that are a little more informal instead of these inquisitions we call hearings.”
But the former school board member, who spent his first day as committee chairman meeting with Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, cautioned that the House committee has a lot to do before it gets to the federal education law. Higher on his priority list, Mr. McKeon said, are the reauthorizations of the Workforce Investment Act, the Higher Education Act, and the Head Start preschool program.
Rep. McKeon, who also once served as the mayor of Santa Clarita, Calif., and is co-owner of a family business that sells Western wear, takes over the helm of the education committee from Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who was elected House majority leader on Feb. 2 in an upset victory.
As committee chairman, Rep. McKeon will be at the center of the firestorm that is sure to surround the renewal of the No Child Left Behind law, which was a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Preparations for the next reauthorization, including hearings and discussions, are expected to begin in earnest this year.
Rep. McKeon, 67, said he’s heard concerns from educators in his district about special education requirements in the NCLB law in particular. He expressed confidence in the job local education officials are doing.
“If we can give them more control over their local school districts, we should,” he said. “When you try to pass something in Washington that takes control away from those people, it’s a real problem.”
But he expressed full support for the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act and said concerns that some have over federal encroachment into local schools are, in part, a misunderstanding.
“No Child Left Behind requires that they teach kids to read and do math,” he said. “We don’t set the standard, we don’t do the test.”
Working With Democrats
Mr. McKeon has spent much of his time on the committee focused on higher education, previously serving as the chairman of the higher education subcommittee. During that time, Mr. McKeon worked extensively on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which has been pending for several years, and on issues such as college affordability.
“You’re going to be hard-pressed to find somebody on Capitol Hill who is more attentive to the issue of college affordability than Buck McKeon,” said Travis J. Reindl, the director of state policy analysis at the Washington-based American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “This is one of his passions.”
That may be because Mr. McKeon went back to college later in life. Though he had started his college career with Brigham Young University, he left early to embark on his professional life. He later returned to the school to earn his undergraduate degree at age 47.
Three years ago, he proposed a “college affordability index,” a ranking of higher education institutions based on their tuition and its rate of increase. Rep. McKeon proposed that schools with tuition that increased more than twice the rate of inflation over three years would lose federal funding, with some caveats. The recent Deficit Reduction Bill, which President Bush signed earlier this month, includes the index idea, which will require colleges to report tuition increases but carries no penalty, Mr. Reindl said.
Mr. McKeon’s style is very much inclusive, said Alex G. Nock, the director of the Commission on No Child Left Behind, a new panel formed by the Aspen Institute, a Washington think tank, to study the law.
Mr. Nock, a former education staff member for Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., the ranking minority member of the higher education subcommittee, said Rep. McKeon has reached out to Democrats. The new chairman and Rep. Kildee worked closely, for example, on the bipartisan Assistive Technology Act, a 2004 measure that authorizes funds for states to purchase items such as Braille readers and adaptive hearing technologies to provide independence to people in the workplace or in schools, Mr. Nock said.
Rep. McKeon “always tries to find bipartisan solutions,” Mr. Nock said. “That would always be his first effort.”
While Mr. Reindl said the new chairman is “very approachable,” it’s clear that Rep. McKeon has well-defined views. “He’s somebody who has strong beliefs so there’s a limit to how far he’s going to bargain,” Mr. Reindl said.
Rep. McKeon, who said on Feb. 15 that he was pleased to already see a note from a Democratic committee member on his desk, added that he would continue to work in a bipartisan way as long as Democrats extended the same courtesy.
“If I reach my hand out and somebody bites it off,” he said, “I’m less inclined to stick my other hand out.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2006 edition of Education Week as McKeon to Seek Opinions on NCLB Reauthorization