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Rep. Paul Ryan Close to Taking Over as Speaker: Here’s His K-12 Record

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 26, 2015 5 min read
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After some tricky political negotiations, Rep. Paul Ryan is poised to become the next Speaker of the House of Representatives. So what does the Wisconsin Republican’s record indicate he could do regarding education policy?

There’s the immediate and momentous question of how he’ll deal with reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The political climate in Congress could make it tough for a new speaker to put a bill on the floor that will need support from Democrats to pass. But Ryan’s connections with the legislation’s sponsors, his distaste for the Obama administration’s ESEA waivers, and his record as a deal maker open up the possibility that he’ll move a compromise forward. More on all that below.

Ryan, the chairman of the House budget committee, has also pushed to reform student loans for low-income borrowers. And he backed K-12 choice on the 2012 campaign trail, when he was the GOP nominee for vice president, and Mitt Romney’s running mate.

Going further back, Ryan worked as a policy aide to former congressman and vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp at Empower America, a conservative think tank. While at Empower America, Ryan also worked with Bill Bennett, who served as secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan and co-founded Empower America. (Ryan even invoked his old think tank’s name in a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel op-ed about the tax code and Obamacare earlier this year.)

ESEA Reauthorization: Too Risky for Ryan?

Perhaps the most pressing question for K-12 advocates is whether Ryan will make any effort to pass a reauthorization of the ESEA.

He’s no fan of the Obama administration’s waivers from the current version of the law, No Child Left Behind, stating on his website that waivers have allowed the U.S. Department of Education to have too much free rein: “As a result, states are beholden to a set of federal requirements that were crafted without congressional approval.” And he offers general praise for the House ESEA bill.

But political currents in Congress may work against ESEA reauthorization’s chances under Ryan.

That’s because prior to taking the speaker’s gavel, he engaged in a delicate dance with the most conservative members of the House, the members of the “House Freedom Caucus,” in an effort to pick up their support for his speakership, on his terms. Any final ESEA bill that emerges out of the conference between House and Senate negotiators is likely to move to the left politically of a GOP-only rewrite measure that barely passed the House this summer. It’s not immediately clear if Ryan would risk angering the Freedom Caucus by championing that legislation.

Plus, dealing with other pressing issues like the debt ceiling and the spending bill for the rest of the year is likely to be higher on the list of priorities for congressional lawmakers in general (and Ryan in particular) than ESEA.

On the other hand, Ryan does have a history of working across the aisle, including his prominent work on budget issues with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Murray, of course, is the Senate sponsor of the ESEA rewrite legislation, with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. That standing relationship might bode well for ESEA’s chances in the House.

Ryan just agreed to hire David Hoppe, a senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center and senior policy adviser at the D.C. lobbying firm Squire Patton Boggs, to be his chief of staff should he clinch the speaker’s job. As an aide to former Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., Hoppe was seen as instrumental to the successful effort to reauthorize the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1997.

And there’s one other thing: Ryan has a very good relationship with Rep. John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who’s overseen the House legislation to reauthorize ESEA. Kline, who is the House education committee chairman and is retiring next year, was rumored to be a candidate for speaker after Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced his departure last month. But earlier this month, Kline said he wanted Ryan to be speaker. (Kline and Ryan, along with Michigan GOP Rep. Fred Upton, also co-wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about an exit plan from Obamacare earlier this year, before the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the health care law in King v. Burwell.)

The Ryan-Murray Budget Deal

The 2013 budget agreement Ryan crafted with Murray also offers some clues to his future edu-positions. For one thing, it put the brakes on sequestration, until... well, near the end of this year, in fact. That gave K-12 programs—and advocates—some breathing room.

In his subsequent budget proposals, Ryan hasn’t been so kind to the department’s budget and education spending in general. In his April 2014 budget blueprint, for example, he sought to consolidate a number of federal programs, and called the department’s structure in general “fragmented and ineffective.” To wit, he supported converting two federal programs, Head Start and the Child Care and Development Fund, into block grants for states to use.

He also criticized the growth of Pell Grants under the Obama administration, and sought to tighten eligibility rules for the grants, among other changes.

And that budget blueprint was similar to previous ones from Ryan that irked congressional Democrats and the Obama administration.

One More Voice for Choice

In addition to being a supporter of the voucher program for students in the District of Columbia, Ryan also made it a point to back school choice back in 2012 on the campaign trail, when he was seeking the vice presidency.

In a speech on poverty he delivered in October of that year, he recounted the positive impact that a private school in Detroit he visited was having on students’ academic careers.

“Sending your child to a great school should not be a privilege of the well-to-do,” Ryan said. “Mitt Romney and I believe that choice should be available to every parent in our country, wherever they live. Education reform is urgent, and freedom is the key.”

Photo: Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. is surrounded by the media as he arrives for a House GOP conference meeting at the Capitol on Oct. 21. Evan Vucci/AP