The decision by U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House education committee, to not seek re-election in 2016 puts added pressure on lawmakers in both chambers to come to an agreement on overhauling the Elementary and Secondary Education Act before the end of the year.
Kline, first elected to the House in 2002, has been the top Republican on the education committee since 2009, where he’s made a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act—the latest iteration of ESEA—a priority. Chairman of the committee since 2011, he has ushered ESEA-rewrite bills through the full House twice and is the author of the current Republican-backed bill, which cleared the House on a party-line vote in July.
The House bill and a Senate-passed version are awaiting a conference committee to hammer out differences as Congress returns from its summer recess.
“Whether it’s replacing No Child Left Behind, holding the Obama administration accountable for its harmful policies, or strengthening higher education, there is a lot of work to do over the next 16 months,” he said in a press release. “I remain humbled by the opportunity to lead the committee, and I intend to finish strong and to continue delivering common-sense reforms America’s student, parents, workers, and employers deserve.”
Even if Kline had sought re-election and won, he is term-limited on the education committee, so this already would be his last year spearheading education priorities. Reps. Joe Wilson of South Carolina and Virginia Foxx of North Carolina are the next two most-senior Republican members.
Turning Up the Heat
But his announcement, education advocates were quick to point out, will give Congress even more incentive to get an ESEA rewrite over the finish line.
“We’re sad to see Chairman Kline go,” said Mary Kusler, director of government relations at the 3 million-member National Education Association. “He’s been a pragmatic leader [who’s] been unafraid to talk about the importance of our public education system in this country and the important role that the federal government has in that system. Granted, he would like less of a federal role than currently exists, but overall he has really been a champion.”
“This is a defining moment,” Kusler added. “If he can get a [ESEA] bill to the president’s desk, this will matter a lot.”
Kline has also helped push bills through the chamber on charter schools, workforce training, child-care development, and education research.
In addition, he’s worked to get three higher education bills through the House with bipartisan backing—one that would increase financial-aid counseling, another that would simplify the amount of financial forecasting families receive for estimated college costs, and another that would allow colleges to test competency-based degree programs.
The workforce training and the child-care measures are the only ones that were signed into law by the president.
Kline has been a vociferous critic of the Obama administration’s education agenda, particularly its waivers from provisions of the NCLB law, which he’s argued are on shaky legal ground, educationally problematic, and a troubling source of policy uncertainty for state leaders.
In an interview with Education Week after the election in November, he said: “I’ve been trying and trying to get No Child Left Behind replaced ... I’m looking at every way to get it done. It’s the most important [education priority] because states are struggling with the temporary-waiver system set up by the administration. We need to change the law.”
Kline is a member of the Republican Study Committee, a group of the most conservative House members, but he’s more moderate when it comes to education policy. In rewriting ESEA, for example, he’s been less inclined to support voucher programs and instead interested in passing a bill that would replicate high-quality charter schools.
“Kline is a legislator who came up at time when moderate was a good thing and not a poison pill,” said Noelle Ellerson, associate executive director of policy and advocacy at AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “He was able to hold true to that even when it became an increasingly difficult task. He had end goals and there were things that were nonnegotiable. But there were also things he was willing to trade on. That’s really what you want, what policy needs, what education needs, and what we’re going to miss.”
The Minnesota Republican has been a big proponent of fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and has continually slammed the Obama administration over its annual budget proposals for the program for students with special needs.
Despite being targeted by liberal HBO personality Bill Maher’s “flip a district” effort during the last election, Kline easily recaptured his seat, as he’s done ever since his first election.
Kline, a 25-year Marine Corps veteran, also had a storied military career that included piloting helicopters in Vietnam, commanding aviation forces in Somalia, and flying the presidential helicopter, Marine One. He also carried the briefcase containing the country’s nuclear attack codes for both former President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
A version of this article appeared in the September 09, 2015 edition of Education Week as Rep. John Kline, House Ed. Panel Chairman, Set to Retire