Federal

Several New House Members Well-Versed In Education

By Erik W. Robelen — December 06, 2000 6 min read
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Mike Honda emphasized his background as a teacher and principal during his successful run for Congress this year.

Now, the California Democrat says he’s eager to put his school know-how to use on the federal level.

“I think people understand that real-life experience is critical in making public policy,” Rep.-elect Honda said in an interview last week.

Mr. Honda is not the only House freshman with a background in education and a strong interest in tackling school issues. The diverse class includes members with a range of experience at the state and local levels, from former teachers and school board members to state legislators active on school matters.

The 41 new members—28 Republicans and 13 Democrats—to be sworn in Jan. 7 offer a blend of ideologies in a chamber that saw only a slight political shift. Barring any changes resulting from recounts, Democrats picked up two new seats, several short of what was needed to wrest control from Republicans. The tentative new breakdown is 221 Republicans and 212 Democrats, plus two Independents.

The Senate, meanwhile, appears on track to a 50-50 split next year, pending a recount in Washington state’s Senate race, in which Democrat Maria Cantwell narrowly defeated incumbent Republican Slade Gorton. That chamber also contains some new members—including three former governors—with substantive experience dealing with education matters. (“Education Is a Top Concern for Senate’s New Freshmen,” Nov. 29, 2000.)

Education played a prominent role in many of this year’s congressional campaigns—as well as the race for the White House—and is expected be a top agenda item in the new 107th Congress. One pressing task will be to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—a job that the departing Congress failed to accomplish.

Mr. Honda, one of six new members interviewed for this story, said his top education priorities include raising teacher salaries and fulfilling Congress’ long-standing promise to pay 40 percent of the added costs associated with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. He is also interested in encouraging longer school days and school years.

But he cautioned that federal lawmakers must take great care in crafting education policy. “As a former classroom teacher and principal, I know it is a complex problem,” said Mr. Honda, who has served a San Jose district in the state Assembly, the lower house of the California legislature, since 1997. “You don’t just say, ‘Here’s the solution, just do it.’”

Rep.-elect Susan A. Davis, a fellow California Democrat, also relishes a chance to take part in the education debate next year.

“I certainly hope to be put on the education committee,” said Ms. Davis. She served for almost a decade on the San Diego school board and championed several education bills during her time in the state Assembly since 1995, including bills to reduce class sizes in the middle grades and to encourage teachers to pursue certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

She expressed support for several priorities advocated by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, such as providing federal aid for school construction and federal incentives to attract new teachers, while adding that she sees a need to ensure local flexibility.

Republican Priorities

Democrats aren’t the only ones with education experience. Republican Mike Ferguson of New Jersey brings some credentials along to Congress that make him ready to join the fray, beginning with the year he spent after college teaching 10th grade history at an urban Roman Catholic school.

“That got me interested in education policy,” he said.

His professional background includes working as the executive director of the Better Schools Foundation, founded by former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander and the late Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., and as the director of Save Our Schoolchildren, a New Jersey lobbying organization created to push a school voucher initiative. Since then, he has formed his own educational consulting firm, Strategic Education Initiatives Inc.

Mr. Ferguson said the main thrust of his approach would be to emphasize flexibility.

“The more we can place decisionmaking authority into local hands, the better,” he said. “What we should have out of Washington is a [policy approach] that encourages innovation.”

But, he added, the federal government does have a part to play.

“I’m not one of those folks that thinks we should eliminate the Department of Education,” he said.

He may not be, but Rep.-elect Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., is. Mr. Flake spent considerable time on education issues as the executive director of the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute from 1992 to 1999. His institute worked actively to build support for that state’s charter school law, considered one of the most expansive in the country.

“The best federal education policy is a policy that diminishes the federal role,” Mr. Flake said.

He acknowledges that eliminating the Education Department is not a politically popular position, even for Republicans, these days, but he supports the idea.

“I’m under no illusion that it would happen,” Mr. Flake said, “but I would run to the floor to vote for it.”

Big Shoes To Fill

Several new members will be filling some big shoes in the coming legislative year.

Rep.-elect Todd Platts, R-Pa., won the seat being vacated by Rep. Bill Goodling, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee and a former school administrator.

While Mr. Platts’ resume on education is certainly shorter than Mr. Goodling’s, he has racked up some experience, having served on the education committee in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives since he was first elected in 1992. He has been the chairman of its subcommittee on basic education for the past two years.

“I’ve worked week in and week out [on education], regularly being in the schools in my district” in York County, Mr. Platts said.

Two of his top priorities will be making federal aid more flexible and fully funding special education. “I’m a fiscal conservative, but when it comes to education, I see that as a fiscally conservative investment,” Mr. Platts said.

Many observers anticipate that it may be difficult to get much accomplished in Congress in the coming year, considering the narrow margins between the parties and likely bad blood from the presidential-election dispute, which was still unresolved last week.

And this past year was already a tough one for education policy, as partisan tensions ultimately scuttled the ESEA reauthorization.

Rep.-elect William Lacy Clay Jr., who won the seat his father, Rep. William L. Clay, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, is vacating this year, said the delicate balance of power demands a bipartisan approach.

“It’s going to require that we reach across the aisle and try to work through some of these issues, and find some common ground,” said Mr. Clay, who has served for 17 years on the education committees in the Missouri House and Senate representing St. Louis. “Our job is not easy. It’s very contentious at this point.”

Rep.-elect Ferguson of New Jersey said the elections revealed an electorate divided over how to address the nation’s needs. “The country is very split,” the Republican said. “It was a real message ... that the American people are expecting us to work together.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2000 edition of Education Week as Several New House Members Well-Versed In Education

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