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Rep. John Kline: States Should Decide How Tests Work Under NCLB

By Alyson Klein — June 25, 2009 3 min read
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The brand-new top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, said this morning that he’s not wedded to the idea that states should test their students in reading and math once a year in grades 3-8.

In fact, he thinks that states should get to decide how often to test kids and in what grades. Obviously, that would be a “bombshell” change to the No Child Left Behind Act, since those tests are at the center of its accountability system.

Kline wasn’t in Congress when the law was passed, back in 2001. He said he “agrees with the goal, how can you not?” of making sure all kids learn, but said the law takes the wrong tack.

“No Child Left Behind is too large of an intrusion of the federal government. It’s telling schools what to do and how to it,” he said. In talking to practitioners in his district, “everybody felt like it was a mandate.”

Kline thinks that the revamped version of NCLB will probably change the 2013-14 deadline for bringing all kids to proficiency and include much more flexibility for states.

“I believe that there will be less intrusion of the federal government,” he said.

Those views shouldn’t come as a total surprise, given that Kline (no relation to me) is a co-sponsor of the A-plus Act, introduced by Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., which gives states significant leeway on NCLB’s accountability provisions.

But I think it’s interesting that Kline got the ranking member job, apparently with the blessing of Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the minority leader and a key author of the NCLB law. Kline’s take on federal accountability seems pretty different from Boehner’s, at least when he was chairman of the Education committee, and from the last lawmaker to hold the ranking member gig, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of Calfiornia.

Unlike some other Republicans (notably former President George W. Bush), Kline doesn’t think the federal government belongs in the voucher business. He likes the idea of school choice, and is upset about the end of the D.C. school choice program. But he doesn’t think it’s the feds’ job to go around setting up school choice programs.

I asked Kline if his selection meant that Boehner and the rest of the Republican caucus had changed their minds about the federal role in accountability. He said he “didn’t know” whether there is agreement on the specifics, but he said that, broadly, House Republicans agree that NCLB was too big of an intrusion on the states and that the federal role must be dialed back.

That has me wondering if the next version of the law will be bipartisan, at least in the House. Back in 2001, Boehner worked really closely on NCLB with Rep. George Miller, a Democrat from California, who at the time, was in Kline’s position as the ranking member of the House Education Committee. (Back then, the GOP controlled the House. Now the Dems are in the majority, and Miller is the committee chairman.)

Given Kline’s views, it’s tough to see how there will be much room for bipartisanship, at least from the committee leadership. Miller may have better luck working with Rep. Mike Castle, of Delaware, who is mulling a run for Senate, and other moderates on the committee, such as Reps. Todd Platts, of Pennsylvania, and Judy Biggert, of Illinois, if he wants some Republican support for his bill.

Kline acknowledged that he and Miller don’t have many views in common.

“George and I are going to differ on most things,” he said. But he made it clear that they have a lot of respect for one another.

Still, there’s at least one area where Kline thinks the two may find common ground: full or mandatory funding for special education. This is a huge priority for Kline, who thinks it is fundamentally unfair that the federal government mandates certain special education services while not paying its share of the bill. He wants to introduce an amendment some time this year to get that done.

Kline thinks Miller is with him on this one, but he noted that Miller “wants to create a lot of new programs” such as a green-schools program, that could divert resources from special education.

Other tidbits about Kline:

  • Kline’s a veteran of the Marine Corps, and his office is decorated with a row of fighter planes, but he also had some children’s artwork.
  • Like McKeon, he’s a very congenial guy. And he knows how to charm reporters: He opened the interview with the fact that his father used to be a newspaper man.
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