School & District Management

Select Group Wields Gavel on State Education Policy

By Michele McNeil — January 30, 2007 6 min read

They’re insurance salesmen, farmers, motivational speakers, and retired teachers. Most are white men who have served in their state legislatures for an average of 10 years. And, while they’re far less known to the public, these policymakers can be more powerful in education than their state schools superintendents or even their governors.

As legislative sessions across the country kick into high gear, the chairmen and chairwomen of state education committees are facing increasing calls to pass laws that better prepare students to compete in a global economy. At the same time, they must navigate tricky issues that hit close to home, such as school consolidation and methods of K-12 funding.

Though legislative leaders in some states have yet to make final their committee picks, an early look at the class of 2007 offers a varied picture when it comes to those heading the education panels. Though most are white and male, at least 25 out of the approximately 100 committee leaders are women, and at least 11 committees will be led by members of racial or ethnic minorities. About half the education committee chiefs have some education background, having served as teachers, school-to-work coordinators, or district superintendents.

Oklahoma Senate Education Committee Co-Chairs

With the Oklahoma Senate split 24-24 between Democrats and Republicans, the parties share leadership of the education committee.

Sen. Judy Eason McIntyre

Sen. Judy Eason McIntyre

Party: Democrat
Residence: Tulsa
Occupation: Retired, Department of Human Services, Child Welfare Division.
First elected: 2004 to the Senate; served in the House of Representatives 2002-2004.
Priorities: Lowering the achievement gap.
Notable: Served for 16 years as a member of the Tulsa school board, two years as president.

Sen. Kathleen Wilcoxson

Sen. Kathleen Wilcoxson

Party: Republican
Residence: Oklahoma City
Occupation: Teacher
First elected: 1996
Priorities: Expanding charter schools; improving the accuracy of state data, including graduation rates; and increasing classroom rigor.
Notable: Appointed by President Reagan to serve on the National Advisory Council on Adult Basic Education in 1982, serving for four years.

SOURCE: Education Week

Some are stepping into their new roles at especially crucial times in their states. New Hampshire Rep. Emma L. Rous is feeling the pressure of a school finance lawsuit and a resulting court mandate that says the legislature must define an “adequate education” and determine a funding source, or the court will do so.

“That is absolutely job number-one,” said Rep. Rous, who was first elected in 2002 and became the chairwoman of the education panel in the lower chamber this year after Democrats seized control of the House from Republicans in the November elections. At the heart of the issue, she said, is whether the state will continue to rely on property taxes to help pay for schools. “I’m going to do a lot of research and have to have a lot of discussion with the committee,” she said.

States are facing increasing pressure from the federal No Child Left Behind Act to help schools raise student achievement, along with a chorus of demands for more rigor in the classroom. It’s often up to lawmakers to help figure out the details.

The influence of the state committee leaders can vary widely. But it’s no exaggeration to say that they hold the power of life or death over individual pieces of legislation, able to stop a bill from advancing by refusing to give it a hearing, or using their influence over a committee to assure its defeat.

Take, for example, Sen. Robert Plymale, a Democrat in West Virginia who wouldn’t allow a vote on a bill last year that would have made it harder to consolidate elementary and middle schools. The idea went no further.

A committee chairman also can reshape a proposal that may be a key piece of a governor’s education agenda.

Consider Sen. Ed Olson, a South Dakota Republican, who in 2001 fought then-Gov. Bill Janklow, also a Republican, on a college-scholarship proposal that required the money be spent only at the state’s public institutions. Sen. Olson said that with so many private colleges in South Dakota, students shouldn’t have their choices limited. The bill stalled, and didn’t become law until 2003—and now the money can be used at any South Dakota college, public or private.

Power Sharing

Such power takes on a new dynamic in the Oklahoma Senate this session. The legislature’s upper chamber is evenly split, 24-24, between Democrats and Republicans—the first time that Republicans even have had a seat at the head of the table after a century of control by Democrats.

Because power is split, control of the committees is shared too. In the education committee, the two co-chairs come from sharply different backgrounds.

Sen. Kathleen Wilcoxson is a white Republican from a wealthy area of Oklahoma City and a former teacher who has wanted to lead the committee since being elected 10 years ago. Her counterpart, Rep. Judy Eason McIntyre, is a black Democrat and social worker who represents some of the poorest areas of Tulsa and who didn’t want the job—she had asked instead to lead a subcommittee of the powerful appropriations committee.

The two have reached an agreement on how they’ll share power. Bills won’t get a hearing unless both chairwomen agree. However, each chairwoman has three “wild cards,” or three bills that can get a hearing even if there isn’t agreement. They’ll alternate weeks in which they preside over the committee.

So how long will the bipartisanship last?

“There may be some moments we may not agree, but I really and truly believe that our motives are the same,” said Sen. Wilcoxson.

Her priorities include improving the accuracy of state graduation data, expanding charter schools, and increasing the rigor of classroom standards. Sen. Eason McIntyre said her priorities were shaped by her 16 years as a Tulsa school board member, when she saw the disparities in achievement among children of different backgrounds. And she said she has seen little improvement since then.

“The same schools that were low-performing then are still low-performing,” she said.

At least two legislators now starting their first terms in office were immediately vaulted to education chairmanships: Sen. Peter Bowman of Maine, a Democrat and a former naval-shipyard commander, and Rep. Donald Gaetz of Florida, a Republican and a former schools superintendent.

Slow Progress

But veteran education committee chairmen say gaining the ability to make significant changes in education policy—such as measures for shrinking achievement gaps or adding new programs—often takes years.

In South Dakota, Sen. Olson is dealing with an ideological divide over preschool that has raged for years. A firm believer in early education, he said steadfast opponents so far have prevented any broad preschool programs.

“You have these conservatives who see preschool as ripping the children out of the womb,” he said.

Legislative leaders who have been involved in local and state education policymaking for years sometimes use their influence to help shape the education debate on the national scene. Sen. Plymale, of West Virginia, has served in K-12 and higher education leadership roles with the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures and the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board.

“I think we can have more influence in what decisions are made in Washington,” said Sen. Plymale, pointing to upcoming debates about college affordability and the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. “Or at least we can tell them what’s happening in the states.”

Sen. Plymale, who counts early education and increasing high school rigor among his priorities, is in his fifth year as education chairman. He is not an educator—he works for a transportation-policy institute—but his education roots go deep. His father was a school board member, and his mother was a teacher. First elected to the legislature 15 years ago, he turned down other leadership positions so he could put himself in line for the education committee chairmanship.

His influence is even greater since he also serves on his chamber’s budget committee, which helps pay for the policies his education committee pushes.

“When you marry the policy with the budget, you can really see the cause and effect of the decisions you make,” Sen. Plymale said. “I think we can have an incredible influence.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2007 edition of Education Week as Select Group Wields Gavel on State Education Policy

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