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Every Student Succeeds Act

ESSA Architect Q&A: Rep. John Kline, R-Minn.

By Alyson Klein — June 13, 2016 11 min read
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The Every Student Succeeds Act turned six months old last week. Earlier this spring, the Alyson half of Politics K-12 sat down with all four of ESSA’s chief architects. You can read interviews with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

Below is an edited transcript of an interview with Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee. Kline is retiring at the end of the year. This interview took place last week, so it touches on more than just ESSA’s development—we also chat about the regulatory process, the presidential race, and what’s next for the House education committee.

You tried for years to get the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorized. Why do you think the reauthorization finally happened in 2015? What was the secret sauce?

“The really secret sauce was the fact that everybody was fed up with No Child Left Behind.”

And they weren’t before you don’t think?

“It changed, obviously. ... People could just sort of grumble about it, until we got to the point where schools were failing and the department was deciding who to give waivers to and who not to and what the conditions would be and what they wouldn’t. So that kind of helped push it over the top. People were fed up with Common Core and people saying OK, we’ve got to get rid of No Child Left Behind.”

Some say it had to do with the mix of leaders in place: Sen. Lamar Alexander had just taken over the Senate education committee. Sen. Patty Murray had just become the ranking member of that committee and Rep. Bobby Scott had just become the House education committee’s top Democrat.

“Well, everybody was new except for me. It was a good mix of personalities, there’s no question about that... All of us wanted to get rid of No Child Left Behind. And there was a general consensus that the federal government had grabbed too much and we ought to move back to local control. And that’s, obviously, where I was all along. ...You had superintendents and teachers’ unions saying you have to get rid of No Child Left Behind .... That kept us going.”

Back in 2011, you and Rep. George Miller of California, who was the top Democrat on the committee at the time, really tried to hard to write a bipartisan bill from the start. And you ended up not being able to get to the same place. Did you make that same effort with Rep. Scott?

Kline reminded me that I had my history wrong—he and Miller actually first attempted a bipartisan bill back in 2010, before the House flipped to Republican control.

“We were trying to do a bipartisan bill. His staff and my staff were working it,” Kline said. The bipartisan consensus never emerged, though: “And then we put together [the Republican-only] H.R. 5 [the Student Success Act, which passed the House in 2013, but didn’t make it through Congress.]”

By 2015, Kline knew the clock was ticking, and he thought Democrats could be brought on later in the process.

“I told Bobby Scott and others, yes, this is a Republican bill. ...We would love for you to vote for it, but it’s fine if you don’t, we need to have this process, we need to get a bill to the floor and pass it. We need to get a bill through the Senate and pass it, so we can by golly do this the old fashioned School House Rock way, how a bill becomes a law. And then that is what happened, and of course we ran into a couple of snags.”

Here Kline talked a bit about the reasons the House bill initially failed to gain enough support to pass in February 2015. The vote on the bill was postponed and leaders brought it back up in July.

“If I made a mistake, and I have to admit that I did, I didn’t realize how many people—because we’d passed this in the previous Congress—I didn’t realize how many people didn’t know, were not familiar with the debate. It took me longer to get people informed, to get them educated, on the education bill, than I had anticipated.”

How did it feel when Heritage Action and Club for Growth (two conservative groups) key-voted the bill (meaning that a vote against it counted towards a lawmaker’s report card) as well as amendments that would have changed the direction of it? How did that feel as a Republican, especially because the National Education Association, which is traditionally aligned with Democrats, was for it, even if they were low-key about it in the House?

Kline noted that Heritage Action, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation think tank, scores a lot of things, including, at one point, a letter to leadership that was not related to ESSA.

“Yes, that was a nuisance, and we had some dialogue going with them and others. And there were organizations who understood, and I think that the teachers’ unions probably both understood, well we can’t come out and support this thing, but we want to get to the end. We wanted to get rid of No Child Left Behind.”

How did you convince your colleagues to bring the bill back up to the floor, after it was postponed earlier in the year?

Kline said he didn’t go door-to-door pleading his case, but he got help from other committee members and key staff and just “started an education process, telling people what was in the bill, what wasn’t in the bill, why this is attack is not correct. I had didn’t realize how many Republicans weren’t there for the debate last time,” he added.

Kline and Scott teamed up in conference behind the scenes to work out the toughest issue: accountability. How did that process go?

“There was a lot of really good staff action. My staff and his staff working it through and we started to work a compromise. ... We just didn’t sit down with a cup of coffee and work it all out. There was a lot of back-and-forth, back-and-forth until we got to a place where I could say, I can live with that compromise, and Bobby could say, I can live with that compromise. Once we had that, then we really started to roll,” Kline said.

And Kline said it helped that he and Scott—and their staff—had already worked together on workforce legislation.

When Speaker [John] Boehner resigned, were you worried that his successor would be beholden to the conservative Freedom Caucus or tea party wing of the party and that the ESEA bill would not make it over the finish line?

“That wasn’t going to happen. ... I wasn’t concerned about that. I don’t know if Sen. Alexander said anything to you about it, but he did raise with me, should we get this done before Boehner walks out the door? And I said, I don’t think so, I’ll check with Speaker Boehner.” Boehner told Kline the lawmakers could wait until he left office.

Did [House Speaker Paul Ryan] give you all a deadline of the end of the year?

Kline said he did not. Instead, Kline said the speaker told him, “I know you guys are getting close. Work it through. Make sure that you will have a majority of the majority. I had already made very, very clear to Bobby Scott, and Patty Murray, and Lamar Alexander, I have to have a majority of the majority. ... And of course we had way more than a majority of a majority. So that was his role. He was not involved in any negotiations. He didn’t put any conditions in there, you have to have this or you have to have that, other than you have to have the majority of the majority.”

Kline added that it was good that Alexander pushed to have Kline chair the conference committee, so that it would be clear that House Republicans had ownership of the bill. (It was the House’s turn to chair, anyway.)

“He is a smart man. That message was good one in helping us move this thing through,” Kline said.

I know the pre-K program was one of the biggest sticking points between you and Sen. Murray. Why was the program something that you worried about?

“A brand new, pre-K program in the Department of Education would have been very hard to sell to get the majority of the majority. And more than that, it’s not the right thing to do. The pre-K program is Head Start and it’s in [Health and Human Services.] So my position was if were going to spend some money here in pre-K, it needs to be used to help coordinate programs, keep them aligned. ... So I said, ‘Yes, we’re going to have this pre-K program that you, Sen. Murray, really want, but it cannot be in the Department of Education. It will grow over there and it will be out of alignment with where the money is. It’s gotta be in HHS.’ And she was not happy. So that was a tough thing. But at the end, it’s a compromise. She got her program and I got to put it where it needed to go.”

Some in the school choice community were really disappointed that there wasn’t more of a school choice focus in the bill. They really wanted Title I portability, ideally allowing federal dollars to follow students to the private school of their choice. What would be your response to that?

“Sen. Alexander and I worked hard to get a bill that would pass and would end No Child Left Behind. If you expend your political capital and energy trying to get Title I portability to private schools—vouchers—you almost certainly can’t get it passed and you’ll get nothing else done. So I think that parents ought to have as much choice as we can possibly get to them. But that wasn’t going to happen. I would lose Republican votes and Democrats and it wouldn’t be bipartisan anymore.”

What about public school portability?

“Again, you are trying to get rid of No Child Left Behind, return local control, put parents in charge and you gotta get what you can get. “

How do you think the regulatory process is going so far?

“I am not pleased at all. ... It seems to me that the plain language of the statute is that. It is plain language. It is perfectly clear. And when it uses words like ‘as determined by the state,’ that’s what it means. Not ‘as interpreted by the secretary of education.’ So we’re watching really, really close. I’m not happy with how it’s going right now. ... We’ve got more still to see. But in general I think the secretary is exceeding the authority granted to him in the statute. We clearly, and repeatedly stated that states would have the decision-making authority on a wide range of issues. And the department’s has already put their own interpretation in there.”

Can you give me a few examples?

Kline is unhappy that the accountability regulations call for every state to come up with a summative score for their schools.

“That’s not in the statute. They just created because they think that’s what you should have. Well, no, no, no. [The department’s job] is to write regulations to implement the law, not make new law and so that to me is a good example. It’s very clear that’s not in the statute and they shouldn’t be doing that,” he said.

And on supplement-not-supplant, Kline said, “we’re not happy there again. You’re not allowed to make your own interpretation of what that means.”

“It’s unfolding in front of us. We’re not happy with the direction we see. ... It could be worse, but I think it’s going to really bear watching,” Kline said.

He said that he and Alexander had been talking about this, “and he is highly exercised ... He made it clear to [then-Education Secretary Arne] Duncan when we started this that the secretary is not the national superintendent and he’s not running a national school board and we ought to restore local control and there ought to be limits on what secretary can do ... It’s in the law by design and that was heavily pushed by me, but also by Sen. Alexander. And there was understanding in the Big Four that that had to be in there. If you’re really trying to get rid of No Child Left Behind, you don’t think the Secretary should be allowed to write his or her own law.”

Moving off of ESSA. This is your last year as chairman of the education committee. What do you still think you can still get done during this election year?

Kline ticked off a to-do list that included child nutrition legislation. He’s working with Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, the agriculture committee chairman on that. But Kline pointed out that Roberts has to work with ranking member Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and “she’s not Murray.” But it’s important he said, because soon schools will have to follow the sodium requirements in the current version of the law, the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act: “And that’s going to really start causing problems.”

He said that committee is also trying to get parts of the Higher Education Act reauthorization over the finish line, including simplifying the Federal Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) and codifying a recent change to how tax income is used to predict a student’s financial aid eligibility known as “prior prior” as well as a juvenile justice bill.

And he thinks that a reauthorization of career and technical education programs could also move, given that there is strong potential for a bipartisan agreement there. “We will get that done,” Kline said.

What kind of an education president do you think Donald Trump would be?

“I honestly don’t know. I’ve never been a [big] Donald Trump supporter. I expect I will be voting for him because I think more four years of this progressive, big government approach that you can expect from Hillary Clinton would be very, very bad ... I’m worried about Donald Trump in a lot of areas ... We all know he’s said some pretty outrageous things in a lot of areas.”

So you just don’t know about him on education policy?

“I don’t. I don’t know if he does [know what he wants to do].”

Do you know who he is listening to on education policy?

Kline said no, he did not. And in response to another question, he said that no, Trump has not reached out to him for help or advice on K-12 policy.

What about Secretary Clinton, what kind of education president would she be?

Kline isn’t a fan of the presumptive Democratic nominee. “She would have a tendency to push the federal government to a bigger role than I would like. I think if she picked a good secretary it would probably be all right. That’s about as big as of praise as I can get would be ‘all right,’” he said.