Federal

GOP K-12 Leader Gets Earful on Policy

By Alyson Klein — March 05, 2013 4 min read
U.S. Rep. John Kline, head of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, meets with school board leaders and superintendents at a round-table session in his Minnesota district. The congressman often tests local sentiment on how federal policies are playing outside Washington.

School superintendents, school board members, and other educators in Rep. John Kline’s congressional district outside the Twin Cities are casting a wary eye at the continuing budget uncertainty back in Washington—and urging the House education committee chairman to put a premium on funding for special education, as well as to push for as much flexibility with federal funds as possible to help them weather any drop in federal aid.

Superintendents who spoke to Mr. Kline at a round table here last week, just days before “sequestration,” or cuts to the federal budget, were set to kick in, are keenly aware that Congress has yet to finalize its spending bills for this fiscal year, making it difficult for school districts to plan. Many superintendents begin hammering out their budgets for the coming school year in March.

District Visit

The home visit was part of a constituent-contact routine for the top GOP lawmaker in the House on education issues, who regularly conducts such sessions back in his home district to get a sense of how federal policy is playing outside Washington—and to seek input from local leaders in crafting national legislation.

Given all the talk of a budget crisis in Washington, districts aren’t expecting a major federal windfall.

“I don’t believe that there will be new money” coming from the federal government, said Keith Jacobus, the superintendent of the 17,000-student South Washington district. To help make up for that, he’d like to see less red tape around what federal education funds can be used for.

And Christopher Richardson, the superintendent of the 3,700-student Northfield Public schools, near St. Paul, said he’s particularly worried about a potential reduction in funding for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. He said his district will have to draw from other funds to cover the cost of the law’s requirements, if the federal government decreases its share of the cost.

IDEA a Priority

In fact, making funding for the IDEA a major federal priority had a lot of support among the attendees. Rep. Kline, a Republican, asked for a show of hands to see how many of the school district officials at the gathering would prefer that lawmakers put financing special education ahead of other programs, particularly new funding streams. Just about everyone was supportive. Their enthusiasm isn’t surprising, given that rural and suburban districts are often more likely to rely on IDEA than other federal programs.

Mr. Richardson and other officials added that they didn’t like the current federal penchant for competitive grant programs, such as Race to the Top. Instead, Mr. Richardson would rather see block grants to states that could be used to leverage change.

Rep. Kline urged superintendents to reject any new federal initiatives that might compete with special education for federal funding.

“When you see a new proposal that’s going to spend some number of billions of dollars, even if it sounds nifty to you, say, ‘That’s nifty, but let’s do it after we fund' " special education, he said.

Many of the superintendents and other administrators in this politically purple congressional district—which supported Rep. Kline with 54 percent of the vote last November, but also very narrowly went for President Barack Obama—say that changes to regulations governing existing funds could also go a long way toward helping districts get more bang for their buck.

For instance, one superintendent noted that he wanted to work with neighboring districts to pool special education transportation costs. They ultimately decided against it, he said, because they worried about running afoul of federal rules that require districts to keep their own spending at a particular level in order to tap federal funds.

Mr. Kline last year introduced legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would have combined a variety of programs aimed at disadvantaged children into a single funding stream. The idea for such flexibility won plaudits from the school officials at the round table, and from advocates for districts, including the American Association of School Administrators and the National School Boards Association. But some civil rights advocates worried that disadvantaged populations of students could be shortchanged under the plan, which never made it to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Jacqueline Kay Magnuson, a member of the board of the 28,000-student Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagen district, pressed Rep. Kline about the long-stalled reauthorization of the ESEA, the current version of which is the No Child Left Behind Act. “Is Congress going to lead, follow, or get out of the way?” she asked.

“We absolutely are working on” getting the legislation passed, Chairman Kline told her. And it’s clear he still has big concerns about the current system for getting around the law—the waivers from some its provisions that the Obama administration is granting.

The waivers have been met with “underwhelming enthusiasm almost everywhere,” he said, in part because they are temporary and don’t provide stability for states and districts.

Sentiment for Renewal

Some of the superintendents and others present said in interviews before the panel that they agreed with those concerns, but added that Minnesota’s waiver is generally better than staying under the NCLB law as it is. Mr. Richardson, for instance, said he would rather have a reauthorization than a continuation of the waivers. But he’s grateful that Minnesota’s waiver will allow his district to work toward a much more “realistic” set of goals than those in the NCLB law.

In an interview after the session, the congressman also touched generally on the issue of school choice.

“We’d really like parents to have as many options as possible,” he said. “It’s an important part of improving overall education and [can give] kids a chance to break out of really badly failing schools or systems.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as Back Home, Top Lawmaker Gets Earful on K-12 Policy

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