With moderate Republican Rep. Michael N. Castle assuming the helm of the House K-12 subcommittee, some conservatives are sounding a death knell for school choice legislation while others are wondering what kind of impact he will have.
“One can safely assume that voucherizing Title I is off the table,” said Nina Shokraii Rees, an education-policy analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, referring to a recent GOP plan to offer vouchers to low-income students served by the flagship federal program in precollegiate education.
Mr. Castle--last week appointed the chairman of the House Early Childhood, Youth, and Families Subcommittee--has voted against national voucher programs in the past. And, with the reauthorization of the massive Elementary and Secondary Education Act before Congress this year, Mr. Castle could play a pivotal role in any upcoming voucher discussions.
However, Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., has already decided that the full House Education and the Workforce Committee, not Mr. Castle’s subcommittee, will shepherd the five-year reauthorization of the ESEA, which governs the bulk of federal programs for K-12 students. Mr. Goodling has been known for giving subcommittee chairmen great leeway in writing legislation. But this year, he will oversee the ESEA amendments.
“The one question is: Has Mr. Castle taken an important job or a not-terribly-important job,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., a leading school choice advocate and an assistant secretary of education during the Reagan administration.
Mr. Goodling, who announced the appointment Jan. 5, said in an interview that Mr. Castle will have a large part in shaping the legislative agenda.
“His big responsibility is to find out what is working and what isn’t working and give us ideas on how we are going to improve these programs,” he said.
Mr. Castle, a 59-year-old former governor of Delaware who was first elected to Congress in 1992, voted against a failed Republican bid in 1997 to use federal funds for private school vouchers. And in the 104th Congress, when his conservative colleagues proposed deep cuts in education spending, he worked quietly to save some of the money. However, he did vote for a failed voucher initiative for Washington schools last year.
“He’s not the kind to make fiery floor speeches denouncing his own leadership,” said Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association. He expects Mr. Castle to be a leader in the ESEA debates. “He’s played a very effective role in making his points,” Mr. Packer said, “without cutting himself off from having influence [within the party].”
Mr. Castle said in a statement that his priority would be securing " the best possible education for every federal dollar spent on our children.”
Then-subcommittee Chairman Frank Riggs, R-Calif., who had sponsored an unsuccessful plan for federal vouchers for low-income students, retired last year. The top contenders to replace him, in addition to Mr. Castle, appeared to be Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., who headed the higher education panel, and the more conservative Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind.
But last week, Angela Flood, a spokeswoman for Mr. Souder, said that her boss had not lobbied for the post and looked forward to working with Mr. Castle and the rest of the education committee.
Conservative groups would have preferred Mr. Souder, said Ms. Rees of the Heritage Foundation, but “the fact that Goodling is going to draft the ESEA package means Castle will have less power.”
“Otherwise,” she added, “I think a lot of conservative groups would have been concerned about Castle.”
She noted, however, that Mr. Castle is “very knowledgeable and knows the nuts and bolts” of education legislation.
Said Mr. Finn: “Mike Castle is a sensible, open-minded legislator who knows education inside and out, and we certainly cannot predict that any defensible ideas would not make it to the table because of his chairmanship.”
Mr. Castle is also one of the few Republicans endorsed by the traditionally liberal teachers’ unions, and he is seen by others as a voice of bipartisanship because of his history of working well with Democrats and other moderates.
“I don’t see any down side to this,” Bruce Hunter, the senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said of the Castle appointment. “I’m really pleased.”
Also last week, Mr. Goodling announced the expansion of the full education committee by four members, two from each party, for a total membership of 49.
Staff Writer Joetta L. Sack contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 1999 edition of Education Week as Goodling: Castle Will Have Key Role in ESEA