As the 109th Congress begins this week, the Senate education committee is expected to get a new chairman—Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming—who observers say will bring to the job a blend of pragmatic conservatism and a keen appreciation for the challenges of rural communities.
The Republican lawmaker, 60, first elected to the Senate in 1996, is slated to replace Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., at the helm of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Sen. Gregg intends to relinquish that post in favor of the chairmanship of the Budget Committee. (“Gregg Leaving Chairmanship of Senate Education Panel,” Nov. 17, 2004.)
Several education leaders from Wyoming said they were pleased Mr. Enzi would take the Senate education panel’s top slot.
“He’s always been a strong supporter of public schools,” said Mark Higdon, a former superintendent of the 7,500-student school system in Gillette, Wyo., where Sen. Enzi served two terms as mayor and the place he still calls home.
“He takes time to be very well informed,” said Mr. Higdon, now the president of the Wyoming School Boards Association. “He’s not one to move ahead without thoughtful consideration.”
Asked to describe the senator’s politics, Mr. Higdon said: “Wyoming is a conservative state. … He’s a very reasoned conservative.”
Gary L. McDowell, the president of the Wyoming Education Association, said the union has worked with Mr. Enzi since his days in the state legislature, where he served for a decade, until his election to the U.S. Senate.
“Senator Enzi is committed to quality public education, and he also brings a pragmatic perspective,” said Mr. McDowell, whose union is an affiliate of the National Education Association.
Education in the Family
Education is something of a family affair for Mr. Enzi. His daughter Amy—one of three children—has worked both as a teacher and a principal in Wyoming public schools. She now teaches 7th grade English in Sheridan, Wyo. His sister Marilyn is the business manager for the 3,250-student Sheridan County School District #2. And his wife, Diana, has a master’s degree in adult education.
Mr. Enzi has been especially focused on the concerns of rural schools, and he helped form the Senate’s bipartisan Rural Education Caucus in 2003.
Just before the Senate passed the No Child Left Behind Act in late 2001, he praised the measure while cautioning that it would pose some unique challenges for rural places like Wyoming.
“We have a population of 493,000 people, and our state has 400 miles on a side,” he said. “The average town that I visit is about 250 people. It is a long way between those towns.”
More recently, Mr. Enzi and several other senators requested a report from the Government Accountability Office—Congress’ investigative arm—assessing the law’s impact on rural schools, and what the federal government might do differently.
“I’m pleased the Department of Education has provided additional flexibility for rural schools,” he said upon that report’s release in September, “but there is still more that can be done to ensure Wyoming’s schools and teachers have the necessary latitude to help our kids meet the standards of NCLB.”
Over the past year, Sen. Enzi, the chairman of the education committee’s Employment, Safety, and Training Subcommittee, took a leading role in efforts to reauthorize the main federal vocational education law. The bill won education committee approval, but did not see further action in the just-ended 108th Congress.
In a December press release, Sen. Enzi cited among his priorities for the education committee plans to tackle the overdue reauthorization bills for both vocational and higher education, as well as job training. He also pledged to conduct aggressive oversight of agencies under the panel’s jurisdiction. His office declined a request to interview the senator for this story.
“He’s not one of the know-it-all types,” said Judy Catchpole, a Republican former Wyoming state schools superintendent. “He’s a listener and then a problem-solver.”
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the education committee, has indicated that he is pleased to see Sen. Enzi take the panel’s helm, and is confident they will work well together.
A version of this article appeared in the January 05, 2005 edition of Education Week as Wyoming Pragmatist Set to Lead Senate Education Panel