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K-12 Policy Shifts Loom in GOP Surge

Aiming to take Congress, many in GOP stress concern over federal education role.
By Alyson Klein — September 16, 2010 8 min read
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Includes updates and/or revisions.

The conservative wave sweeping toward the 2010 midterm elections could put in power a group of congressional Republicans who are largely disenchanted with a recent expansion of the federal role in K-12 policy and leery of offering incentives for states in areas such as adoption of common standards and assessments.

A slew of victories in November bringing GOP control to one or both houses of Congress would also almost certainly spell the end of federal financial help for schools facing layoffs and other cuts. Republican lawmakers nearly universally voted against Democratic bills to give states and districts emergency cash to weather the continuing economic crisis.

Still, any Republican majority would likely include influential members who see eye to eye with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on certain priorities, such as encouraging the spread of charter schools and rewarding effective teachers with extra pay.

Lawmakers on both sides of the political divide also say the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the No Child Left Behind Act, needs a major shakeup. But it might be harder to reauthorize the nearly 9-year-old law if the GOP takes over one or both chambers, longtime Capitol Hill aides from both parties say.

“I’d say, expect more gridlock in the short term,” said Vic Klatt, a former top aide to Republicans on the House education committee. “If the Democrats with their huge majorities [in both chambers] couldn’t move [reauthorization], it’s hard to picture it being any different if Republicans control the House or the House and the Senate.”

Republicans are expected to pick up a significant number of seats in the House of Representatives, likely somewhere between 37 and 42, said Nathan Gonzales, the political editor of The Rothenberg Report, a nonpartisan biweekly newsletter that tracks federal and gubernatorial elections. The House has 255 voting Democrats and 178 voting Republicans.

That estimate is “smack dab in the middle” of the 39 seats the GOP would need to take over the chamber, said Mr. Gonzales, who added that “it’s more likely than not that the Republicans will gain the House.”

Republicans are also nearly certain to bolster their numbers in the Senate, which now has 57 Democrats, 41 Republicans, and two Independents who caucus with the Democrats. They will probably pick up at least six of the 10 additional seats needed for control, he said.

New Leadership?

If Republicans do land a majority in the House, Rep. John Kline of Minnesota was not in Congress in 2001 when the NCLB law was passed—would likely become the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

Rep. Kline is now the top Republican on the panel and one of a group of eight key lawmakers the Obama administration has courted in its push to renew the ESEA.

Over the summer, Rep. Kline talked to superintendents and administrators in his congressional district to get their views on the Obama administration’s blueprint for renewing the ESEA, released in March. The proposal seeks to give states more flexibility in intervening in most schools, while pushing states to adopt standards to help ensure students are college- and-career-ready. But so far, Rep. Kline hasn’t heard a groundswell of support from school leaders back in his southern Minnesota district.

“They’re frankly not real thrilled with the blueprint,” Rep. Kline said in an interview this week. Although educators in his district want to see a fix for the NCLB law, he said, there are “objections to anything ... that comes in and tells them how to do their job. ... One of the things that we’ve been insisting on is that we have to make [the law] simpler, easier to comply with, and more flexible, therefore putting some meaning back into local control.”

Rep. Kline declined to discuss what his priorities would be should he become education chairman, saying such questions were premature. But his take on some of the administration’s major policy initiatives gives an indication of where he—and many in the House Republican caucus—are leaning.

For instance, Rep. Kline casts a wary eye on the federal role in championing the Common Core State Standards Initiative. That effort, which resulted in the creation of reading and mathematics standards that so far have been adopted by nearly 40 states, was state-led, through the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association.

Rep. Kline has no problem with, for instance, Minnesota and Wisconsin getting together and coming up with their own set of more-rigorous academic standards. But the federal incentives for adopting the common-core standards make him—and many of his fellow House Republicans—uneasy, he said.

States that competed for a slice of the $4 billion in federal Race to the Top grants got extra points for their participation in the common-standards venture. And, in his blueprint for an ESEA renewal, Secretary Duncan proposed tying the Title I grants given to districts to help disadvantaged students to states’ adoption of either the common-core standards or to college- and career-readiness standards developed with state institutions of higher education.

“We’re watching this very closely,” Rep. Kline said of the standards push. “If we are, in fact, putting in a de facto national curriculum, my caucus will rebel. I’m very leery when [the action] shifts over to the U.S. Department of Education providing either rewards or punishment” for adopting certain standards. “That’s dangerous,” he said.

Rep. Kline also has qualms about the administration’s $350 million program aimed at helping states craft common assessments, funded with Race to the Top money. He wants to ensure that it doesn’t lead to Education Department involvement in creating the tests.

The Obama administration also asked for $1.35 billion in the fiscal 2011 budget to continue the Race to the Top program for an additional year and extend grant eligibility from states to school districts; Rep. Kline said he wouldn’t support that plan. He thinks the program was too rigid and imposed federal policy preferences on states.

“This is the U.S. Department of Education putting [out its] view of what needs to be done. ... It’s not the states deciding. It’s not local control,” he said.

The former Marine colonel and helicopter pilot said he wouldn’t be likely to support the provision of more money to help steady state and district finances, since he doesn’t think the $100 billion provided for education under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the 2009 stimulus law, helped the economy.

But there is an area he’d like to see the administration target for increases: special education. Increasing the federal share of funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act would give school districts some stability in what is often a costly area, he said.

Rep. Kline also said there are areas on which he and Secretary Duncan agree, including a need to expand the number of high-quality charter schools and to “break the tenure stranglehold that the teachers’ unions have had all across the country. ... We both agree that we need some way to remove the bad teachers and reward the good teachers.”

Common Ground

John Bailey, a former aide to President George W. Bush on education and labor issues, sees a possible champion for K-12 cooperation in Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, a former chairman of the House education committee and the chamber’s current minority leader, who would be in line to become the speaker of the House under a GOP majority.

When he led the committee in 2001, Mr. Boehner helped shepherd the NCLB law through Congress, working closely with then-ranking member Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., now the chairman of the panel.

Rep. Boehner is “someone who really knows the policy issues and cares about them” Mr. Bailey said. “I think that’s helpful.”

At this point, it is considered less likely that Republicans will take over the Senate, but they are expected to substantially boost their numbers in that chamber.

That could mean a more prominent negotiating position for Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, who has said he will look out for the interests of rural schools in ESEA renewal; and for Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who is the ranking member on the Senate subcommittee on K-12 policy and serves as the minority whip, a key Republican leadership role in the Senate.

Sen. Alexander, who served as U.S. secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, has often expressed admiration for Mr. Duncan, calling him President Barack Obama’s best Cabinet pick. A longtime supporter of merit pay for teachers, Sen. Alexander has been complimentary of the administration’s efforts to increase appropriations for the Teacher Incentive Fund, which provides grants to districts for pay-for-performance programs.

Sens. Alexander and Enzi both have a record of working with Democrats to reach consensus on politically charged education issues.

But they may have to contend with a new conservative crop of senators who are seeking a significantly scaled-back role for the federal government in education, said Jack Jennings, who worked as an aide to Democrats on the House education committee for nearly three decades.

Such lawmakers could include Joe Miller of Alaska, a lawyer who defeated Sen. Lisa Murkowski in that state’s recent GOP primary, and Rand Paul of Kentucky, the Republican nominee in that state, who has advocated scrapping the federal Department of Education.

“The tea party is pulling Republicans more in the direction of, ‘Get the federal government out of education,’” said Mr. Jennings, now the president of Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy organization in Washington, referring to the grassroots groups providing the momentum for many of the most conservative candidates this year.

Republicans would probably be reluctant to hand President Obama a victory on a major domestic-policy issue, Mr. Jennings said. And Sens. Alexander and Enzi may decide “it’s not politically possible for them to do much” on K-12 policy.

But others say there is reason to hope for an ESEA reauthorization.

“I’m optimistic about a bill in 2011,” said Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who served in the Education Department under the second President Bush. He said Republicans may find much to like in the Obama blueprint.

“I do suspect,” Mr. Petrilli said, “there will be an interest in finding a few issues where they can find some common ground.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2010 edition of Education Week as K-12 Policy Shifts Loom in Republican Surge

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