In a four-decade career in Congress, just-retired U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., put an indelible stamp on education policy. Most recently the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, he previously was the chairman of the education committee when Democrats were in control of the U.S. House of Representatives. He has long championed education equality for low-income and minority students, English-language learners, students with disabilities, and other communities facing disadvantages, and was a key architect of the No Child Left Behind Act.
At a post-election event presented by Education Week and the Gallup organization, Mr. Miller reflected on education policy and his career in Congress in an interview with Assistant Editor and Politics K-12 blogger Alyson Klein. Here is an edited version of that Nov. 12 discussion.
You have been a leading force on education for decades. What was the best moment? What are you most proud of?
I think it’s hard, because I’ve had such wonderful opportunities and success. But I think for me, the involvement [in] and the passage of, and the continuation of, the landmark legislation known as Education for All Handicapped Children [now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act]. At that time , in many parts of the country, children with what we would consider today very minor disabilities could be barred from public schools, and were. And today, when I walk into the disabilities community, almost anywhere in the country, I am confronted with people who are college graduates, who have their own businesses, who are lawyers, doctors, who are reporters. They’re in every part of our economy and our society, and yet there was a time when they couldn’t get the basic key to participation, which was an education. To me, that access … is one of the most exciting things that have happened to me. That became my touchstone in everything I did in education.
If you had one do-over in the last 40 years, something you could go back and change, what would it be?
I don’t have many of those, because to me if you fail, that’s why they built in tomorrows. In legislation, you have to be prepared to fail many, many times. If you look at things I’ve been involved in, whether it’s the environment or with children, some of it took 10 or 15 years.
In some ways, the atmosphere on Capitol Hill has become more poisonous and partisan at this point than in any other part of your career. When did you see that shift start to happen? Do you think it can change, and what would it take?
Well, if everyone just lived up to the comments they made the night of the election and three or four days after the election, we’d probably be home free in the next session of Congress, but we know the reality of this place. To me, the most visible point in terms of this history was Newt Gingrich really deciding that the Republicans [in 1975] in the minority … were comfortable, and he didn’t like that. He said, “You’ll never be in the majority.” So he started … being confrontational on the floor, … and today it’s come full circle. Some people would even suggest some of the reforms we did in our class in 1974, … that breaking down the seniority system and breaking down some of the rules in the Congress, have led to this. It didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t just happen in the last two years. There’s been a drift in the Congress, and it’s diminished the legislative process. ... The idea that you would spend a week, maybe, debating the nuances of national education policy, no—now you get an hour. I don’t think that works in a big, diverse democracy in America.
When Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was picked, you were really excited because you wanted a disrupter in the role of education secretary.
I got one.
Sounds like you think he lived up to that. How do you see his tenure?
Oh, I think he’s clearly lived up to it. You have to remember, when he came here we already had three or four wheels in the mud, certainly, around the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. We were going nowhere. [Now-retired U.S. Rep. Howard P. “Buck”] McKeon and I worked very hard to put a discussion draft out, and we got shot down by all points on the compass. I think that the secretary had to make a decision on behalf of the president: ... He could wait for the Congress, and he would be waiting still today, six years later. So they decided to act with the [NCLB] waivers and the Race to the Top. I think it was the right decision from an incoming administration.
You’ve said that No Child Left Behind is, at its core, a civil rights law. Do you think that a reauthorization can move with this new set of players? And do you think they can put together a bill that maintains its civil rights core?
I don’t think there’s much debate on either side of the aisle about that aspect of this. I don’t think you can go back to a time when you think you can deny access to a quality education. ... The real question is going to be about implementation and the question of [whether] you have a good accountability system. If ... you really have a system that works, then, in fact, you can have a second discussion about what about involving ... the state and local government.
There’s been a lot of interest lately in an idea of staggered testing, grade-span testing, or at the very least substituting local tests for state tests. Is that a policy you would support, and what do you see as the potential pitfalls?
I think you have to be very, very careful, and I don’t know these suggestions are really answers. I go back to the fundamentals, and the fundamentals are: Do you have a good assessment system? And does that assessment system inform the teacher, the school, and others about how they’re doing with curriculum? … If you start grade-span testing, I question whether there’s too much time [in between tests]. And let’s not pretend like we’re all doing a crackerjack job. There are students in terrible learning situations that need to be improved. The idea that we would step out [of] the accountability system doesn’t make sense. I don’t think that can be justified given the situation that, again, poor and minority and other students are in terrible situations in many schools in this country.
What’s next for you? How will you continue to contribute to this debate and discussion?
There is no way you can re-create your life in Congress, which for me has been one of the great rides possible for a person who is engaged in issues. What I’d like to do is pursue my passions in some other venue where I could continue to have an impact on outcomes and have the excitement of being engaged. So my passions are children, the environment, and working men and women. So we will see what will happen.
Watch the full Q&A:
A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2015 edition of Education Week as Leaving the Stage: U.S. Rep. George Miller Reflects