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Rep. George Miller, Major Education-Reform Advocate in Congress, to Retire

By Alyson Klein — January 13, 2014 4 min read
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U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House education committee, a key author of the No Child Left Behind Act and a powerhouse on K-12 policy for decades, announced Monday that he will not seek re-election to Congress after this term.

It’s hard to overstate the impact that the retirement of Miller, first elected to Congress in 1974, will have on the future of federal K-12 policy. He was one of the first Democrats to embrace policies like charter schools, merit pay for effective teachers, and a robust role for the federal government in accountability—and remains among their most vocal champions in the Democratic caucus.

He’s helped sell those ideas—which aren’t always popular with traditional Democratic allies such as teachers’ unions—to his fellow Democrats, aided in part by his close relationship with his colleague from the Golden State, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Minority Leader.

“Things will definitely be very different,” said Charlie Barone, the director policy director of Democrats for Education Reform, who served as top aide to Miller during the development of the NCLB law in 2001. Miller, he said, is “wonky” and “very smart and [did not] allow someone else to define an issue for him. He would follow through in the way he thought was right. .... That’s a tough combination to find in politics, particularly in education policy.”

Despite his reputation as a liberal lion, on issues such as labor and the environment, Miller has a record of working across the aisle with Republicans on a range of education bills, the NCLB law being the most prominent example. In particular, Miller helped push for language that would call for teachers to be considered “highly qualified,” meaning having a bachelor’s degree and subject-matter certification. He also insisted that schools be held accountable for the progress of minority children, children in special education, and English-language learners, under the NCLB law.

During the so-far-stalled reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, he’s been among just a handful of lawmakers pushing for some role for the federal government in prodding states to set goals for student achievement. He’s also fought for language that would call for states and districts to develop systems for measuring teacher effectiveness, in part through student outcomes.

And he’s kept a close eye on the U.S. Department of Education’s ESEA waivers, prodding the education secretary to ensure that subgroup students don’t get lost in the push to give states greater flexibility.He’s flagged a number of issues in the waivers, including how states measure graduation rates.

Miller was also a key author of the education portion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the federal economic stimulus program that poured some $100 billion into education. He helped craft language that became the Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation grant programs, which had a major role in shaping the Obama administration’s K-12 policy.

Miller’s embrace of policies such as merit pay have landed him in hot water with traditional Democratic constituencies, recalled Vic Klatt, a longtime aide to Republicans on the House education committee. For instance, back in 2007, Miller released a draft bill reauthorizing the NCLB law that would have required states to take student outcomes into account when determining which teachers would be eligible for bonus pay. That sparked vigorous opposition from the California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

“He really went out a limb to support the right policy on teacher issues, even if it was not in his political interest to do so,” said Klatt, who is now a principal at Penn Hill Group, a government relations firm in Washington. “He took on a key constituency and paid a price for it.”

Miller who described himself in a recent interview with Education Week as “a legislator” has close ties not only to Pelosi, but also to the White House and the Education Department. And he rents room in his Capitol Hill townhouse to two powerbrokers in the U.S. Senate—Democratic Sens. Richard Durbin, of Illinois, and Charles Schumer, of New York.

He also has a strong working relationship with Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee.

“For four decades, George Miller has been a fierce advocate in Congress for students and workers,” said Kline in a statement. “I look forward to continuing our work together in the year ahead. It remains an honor to serve with George, and I am proud to call him a friend.”

Miller’s retirement comes at a time of major turnover for many key K-12 policymaking positions in Congress. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee and the panel that oversees education spending, is also retiring at the end of this Congress. The two lawmakers have worked together on a major bill to prod states to expand their preschool programs to more 4-year-olds. The legislation isn’t expected to be enacted this Congress, so the issue will need a new champion.

And Kline could be in his final term as the top Republican on the panel—he will need to get a waiver from congressional leadership in order to remain in his post.

Reps. Robert Andrews of New Jersey, Robert “Bobby” Scott of Virginia, and Ruben Hinojosa of Texas are all senior Democrats on the House education committee who could be tapped for the top Democratic slot in the next Congress, Barone said.

But, he added, “It’s hard to see anybody filllng [Miller’s] shoes. I think there are members that are inclined to be reform oriented,” but no one has “that combination of talent and passion. In some ways he is irreplaceable.”

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