Federal Opinion

In the Game

By Thomas Toch & Phi Delta Kappan — May 10, 2011 7 min read
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Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, White House aides, and members of Congress have been working behind the scenes for months on a rewrite of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. But one of the key players in the negotiations is an earnest, high-energy mother of two young children who is hardly known outside of Washington: Bethany Little, the top education advisor to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP).

On Harkin’s behalf, Little has been managing ESEA deliberations not only among Senate Democrats, but also with the chamber’s Republicans. She is often Harkin’s emissary to Democratic allies in the White House and the Department of Education and to the many education organizations seeking to influence the ESEA reauthorization. Eventually, she’ll be negotiating with the new Republican education leaders in the House, where some recently elected members have been pushing to end the Department of Education’s cabinet status.

A quintessentially Washington career path brought Little, now 37, to this role. She came to D.C. from Miami, Fla., to attend Georgetown University, got into politics, and stayed. She did advance work for the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign in 1996. After a stint at a good-government nonprofit, she landed a political appointment at the Department of Education and then moved to the White House domestic policy staff for two years, leaving on the last day of the second Clinton Administration. She moved up Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill, where she represented Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) in drafting NCLB.

Little left the grinding pace of Hill life and the minority status of Senate Democrats to have children, now ages six and two. During that time, she became director of government relations at the nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund and then vice president for policy and federal advocacy at the Alliance for Excellent Education, another Washington policy and advocacy group. When Democrats won back control of the Congress and Obama won the White House, the top education policy person on the Senate HELP committee, Carmel Martin, became assistant secretary of education for planning, evaluation, and policy development. Sen. Ted Kennedy, the chair of the HELP committee, offered Little Martin’s former job. After a long conversation with her husband about parenting and the demands of two unrelenting Washington jobs — her husband is director of public affairs at the Central Intelligence Agency and travels regularly — she returned to the Hill. And when Harkin took over the committee after Kennedy’s death, he kept Little on.

Little now works out of a cramped HELP education “suite” on the 6th floor of the Hart Senate Office Building. She manages a staff of 10 with a policy portfolio that extends from early childhood education to college student aid and workforce development.

ESEA a Priority

While the HELP committee’s work runs the education gamut, the reauthorization of ESEA, the major federal public education law, consumes Little’s time. And though she helped write the last edition of the law a decade ago, she’s quick to point out what she sees as its flaws: an overly rigid accountability system that favors affluent schools and imposes the same sanctions on slightly underperforming school as on failing schools; ineffective school choice and tutoring programs; unintended incentives for states to lower standards; and not enough attention to the key issue of teacher quality.

Little and her colleagues are using the Obama administration’s blueprint, released over a year ago, as the source for many of the changes that she’s negotiating. The Administration wants to maintain the NCLB mandate that states test students annually in a number of grades and report results by race and other categories because they want to ensure that school districts pay more attention to the poor, students of color, and other often-overlooked groups. But the Administration also wants to measure how much schools increase student learning over a year, rather than only how many students meet state standards. And they want to target reforms at the weakest schools, rather than at any school where even one group of students in a single grade underperforms in a single tested subject, a provision of NCLB that the Administration says will result in 80% of the nation’s public schools being “labeled as failing” this summer.

Little says the likely shift to greater flexibility for states under the new law reflects a greater commitment among states today to high standards and school accountability. “States were not stepping up on accountability for student achievement in 2000. They were running from it,” Little said. “NCLB had to be tough.”

She argues that the move by states to introduce the Common Core standards and the participation of many states in two federally funded consortia to create higher quality and more demanding standardized tests has allowed Congress to work on other issues in the ESEA reauthorization. “We don’t have to fix the disaster of [low] state standards,” she explained.

Little is working on the new ESEA with key officials in the White House and the Department of Education who have been colleagues for years. Carmel Martin plays a central role on the legislation for Duncan, and Roberto Rodriquez, who is on the White House domestic policy staff, also worked for Kennedy on the HELP committee before joining the Obama administration. Such relationships count for a lot, Little says, in a city that “doesn’t lend itself to trust easily.”

But there’s not unanimity in the Democrats’ ranks. As one example, the accountability hawks — including Democrats for School Reform, a centrist lobbying organization — are wary of rating schools on student growth rather than on how many students meet state standards, and they’re uncomfortable focusing reform only on the worst-performing schools for fear that struggling students will fall through the cracks, a concern that Little shares. Simply reporting schools’ results “is necessary but not sufficient,” she says. Nor is there a consensus on the remedies the law should require for the nation’s most troubled public schools. At the same time, some Democrats are pushing for the law to demand higher quality testing, rather than leaving that task to the voluntary state consortia.

Union Challenges

The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers pose a big challenge to Little and her team. Like Kennedy before him, Harkin, who also heads the Senate appropriations subcommittee that controls the federal education budget, is pro-labor and enjoys union backing. But Harkin supports the Obama administration’s proposal to require rigorous teacher evaluations under the new education law, including the use of student test scores, a measure that the unions don’t like. They’ve also lobbied against other measures that the president is proposing, including school accountability, equalizing expenditures on teachers throughout school systems, and strategies for fixing failing schools that replace teachers.

But Little says the unions “are willing to come to the table.” She meets with the AFT or the NEA every week and believes that passing federal legislation that rank-and-file teachers don’t like “doesn’t get you very far in school reform.” She says she wants the new law to include principal and teacher evaluations using student test results in combination with classroom observations and other measures that help teachers improve their craft, not just weed out low performers.

Little is pushing, on Harkin’s orders, to produce ESEA legislation in the HELP committee before summer, and Obama told an audience in March that he wants a bill on his desk before students return to school in the fall. Bu the Republican ascendency in the House casts doubt on Obama’s timetable. “We need to take the time to get this right,” said Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, in response to Obama’s prodding.

A lack of knowledge about federal education policy among many new House members is part of the problem, Little says, making the already difficult task of rewriting a complicated law that much tougher. But that’s Washington. And after a decade and a half in the churn of policy and politics, Little is unfazed.

Most days she’s on her Blackberry by 5 a.m., and she often leaves the house before her children rise and returns after they’re in bed. When Congress convenes, she has to rely on her mother and father and her in-laws to spend weeks at a time in Washington as substitute parents. It’s the price of being in the game.

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All articles published in Phi Delta Kappan are protected by copyright. For permission to use or reproduce Kappan articles, please e-mail kappan@pdkintl.org.


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