Bush Has a Loyal Lieutenant In New Ed. Panel Chairman

By Erik W. Robelen — January 31, 2001 6 min read
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Now that President Bush has outlined his education package, it falls on a lawmaker not often associated with education matters to help steer the plan through Congress: Rep. John A. Boehner, the new chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee.

For the Ohio Republican, the mission is clear: “My job is to work with our new president to help implement his agenda,” Mr. Boehner said in a recent interview.

A former plastics and packaging executive, Mr. Boehner has served on the education committee since 1991, but has concentrated mainly on workforce issues. Most recently, he chaired the panel’s Subcommittee on Employer-Employee Relations for two years.

But what he may lack in expertise on education, he more than makes up for in legislative skills, his fellow committee members say.

Rep. John A. Boehner,

Position: Chairman, House Education and Workforce Committee.
Age: 51
Education: Xavier University, B.S. in business, 1977.
Career:Member, U.S. House of Representatives, 1991-present; chairman, House Republican Conference, 1995-1998; member, Ohio House of Representatives, 1985-1991; plastics and packaging executive, Nucite Sales LP, 1976-1990; U.S. Navy, 1969.
Personal: Married, with two children.

“I think John’s an excellent choice,” said Rep. Robert E. Andrews, D- N.J., the ranking Democrat on the Employer-Employee Relations Subcommittee. “What the committee needs is a good legislative technician, a good consensus builder. John has the skills to achieve” a bipartisan education bill.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., who had vied to chair the committee himself, also said he believes Mr. Boehner will be an effective leader.

“John’s bright, he’s aggressive, so I think he’ll be good,” Mr. Hoekstra said. “I’m expecting ... he’ll develop his own expertise [on education], and also rely on other members who have spent more time on education as he has on labor and business issues.”

Abolishing the Department

Mr. Boehner, 51, certainly stands in contrast to his predecessor as chairman, Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, a former school administrator with a wide knowledge of school matters, who devoted most of his energies to education. Mr. Goodling retired from Congress this month.

That said, the new chairman, who represents the 8th Congressional District in southwest Ohio, is no stranger to the issue. In fact, he was a vocal advocate for abolishing the Department of Education when the Republicans gained control of Congress in 1995. At the time, Mr. Boehner co-sponsored legislation that would have converted most federal education aid into block grants to states, with few strings attached.

Like many conservative Republicans, Rep. Boehner has moved away from a rhetorical emphasis on scaling back the federal role in education. While he still supports giving states and districts more flexibility in how they spend federal money, he endorses the view that flexibility should be coupled with greater demands for accountability.

Mr. Boehner suggested that, in essence, his stance on education in the mid-1990s was not dissimilar from President Bush’s call for more local control.

“Our intent was to take those dollars and to get them back home, and to give parents, teachers, and school board members more flexibility, and not have the federal government driving every administration of every school district in America,” he said. “I would suggest that we didn’t say it very well when we [proposed] to abolish the Department of Education.”

But John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy and a former aide to House Democrats on the education committee, argues that Mr. Boehner’s account is revisionist history.

“I think he’s putting a good face on it,” Mr. Jennings said. “At the time, [conservative Republicans] clearly wanted to eliminate the federal role in education,” which he said is a far cry from what President Bush is talking about.

During his career in the House, Mr. Boehner has voted to provide federal funding for private school vouchers and to repeal bilingual education programs, though such efforts failed to become law. He also was among 132 representatives to oppose the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act; he did succeed, however, in attaching a public-school-choice amendment to that bill.

Mr. Boehner played an active role during the 105th Congress in promoting the Republican Agenda for the American Learner, which embraced school vouchers, support for charter schools, and a call to ensure that most federal education aid went directly to classrooms, among other provisions. More recently, in the just-ended 106th Congress, he helped win passage of a law to expand the federal Ed-Flex program, which gives states the authority to waive certain federal education regulations.

Rep. Boehner has seen his political fortunes rise and fall since he was first elected to Congress in 1990. He quickly gained national attention as part of the so-called “Gang of Seven” freshmen who pushed for congressional reforms in the wake of the House Bank scandal of the early ‘90s.

In 1995, with backing from then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a close political ally, Mr. Boehner was elected by his Republican colleagues to chair the House Republican Conference, the No. 4 position in the House GOP hierarchy. But in 1998, the chamber’s Republicans voted him out as conference chairman in favor of Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma.

A Critical Moment

Mr. Boehner takes the helm of the education committee at a historic moment. Not since 1954 have both houses of Congress and the White House been in Republican hands.

“This committee, and this chairmanship, from a Republican point of view, has risen in significance greatly” with the election of a Republican president, said Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., a leading moderate who for the past two years has chaired the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families. “At some point, you pick people who are good leaders. John is a good leader.”

Mr. Castle added: “He knows what buttons to push all over Washington, D.C., to get things done.”

Chairman Boehner will need all of those skills to help pass comprehensive education legislation. After all, the 106th Congress failed after more than 11/2 years of effort to reauthorize the ESEA, a broad law first enacted in 1965 that is the centerpiece of federal involvement in precollegiate education.

While Democrats agree with many aspects of Mr. Bush’s agenda, one issue guaranteed to fire them up is vouchers. As part of its emphasis on accountability for student achievement, the plan unveiled by the new president last week would allow students in persistently failing public schools to take a portion of the schools’ federal aid elsewhere, including to help pay private school tuition.

Asked whether Republicans would insist on keeping the voucher element, Mr. Boehner replied, “If there’s a child that’s in a school that has not improved, that we’ve helped and still hasn’t improved, there has to be a way out for the child.”

He added: “Now, how we do that will be the subject of great debate. We may disagree on what the relief valve is, but I think as we go through the process, I’m hopeful that we’ll come to some consensus on how to help that child.”

On President Bush’s call for annual testing of students in grades 3-8, the chairman acknowledged that might be tough for some lawmakers to embrace. But, he said, “it’s a matter of how it’s done.”

“If [states and districts] want the increased flexibility, and we do in fact want the power to go home,” Mr. Boehner said, “the money is coming from Washington and we have a responsibility to see that we’re getting results in quality from the money that we’re spending.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2001 edition of Education Week as Bush Has a Loyal Lieutenant In New Ed. Panel Chairman


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