The New Congress

By Erik W. Robelen & Michelle R. Davis — January 25, 2005 11 min read
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Following are profiles of eight freshman members of the 109th Congress who have backgrounds or particular interest in public education.

Sen. Jim DeMint

Sen. Jim DeMint

Republican of South Carolina
Age: 53
Background: Three-term House member; market-research-company owner

Sen. Jim DeMint has made the jump from the House to the Senate, but as a new member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, he finds himself in familiar territory. He’ll continue some of the work he did as a member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

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A booster of charter schools and private school vouchers, Mr. DeMint said he wants to focus on how to refine and tailor the ways in which the nation teaches its students.

“We can’t continue to have a one-size-fits-all approach,” he said in an interview.

Though he praised the No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. DeMint said the federal government needs to provide more flexibility to states and districts in how they use their federal money.

He’ll also continue to push for tax credits for corporations and individuals that contribute to schools or create scholarships. In 2004 in the House, Mr. DeMint introduced tax-relief legislation that would have helped reimburse teachers for out-of-pocket education expenses. An alternate version of a teacher tax credit plan was signed into law by President Bush last year as part of a tax-relief package passed by Congress.

Mr. DeMint’s bill also sought to make individuals and corporations eligible for a similar tax credit if they donated money to a K-12 school, up to $500 for one person or up to $100,000 for a business. Mr. DeMint said he plans to introduce a similar bill in the Senate.

Education played a significant role in his campaign to win the Senate seat vacated by retiring Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, a Democrat. Mr. DeMint defeated Democratic state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum. The tough campaign was filled with education references, including one in which Mr. DeMint said he opposed allowing gay men and lesbians to work as public school teachers. Though he later apologized, he added that single pregnant women shouldn’t be teachers either.

Sen. Johnny Isakson

Sen. Johnny Isakson

Republican of Georgia
Age: 60
Background: Three-term House member; Georgia state board of education chairman

Sen. Johnny Isakson is another House education committee member who made the transition to the Senate, where he is now a member of that chamber’s education panel.

A former chairman of the Georgia state board of education, the moderate Mr. Isakson said he was pleased to hear Margaret Spellings at her Jan. 6 confirmation hearing to become the next secretary of education discuss making the No Child Left Behind Act “workable and sensible.”

“She said the two words every teacher and principal wants to hear,” he said in an interview. In the House, Mr. Isakson served as a negotiator for the No Child Left Behind Act and was on the Web-Based Education Commission, which studied school technology issues. The commission issued a 2000 report recommending changes to encourage the use of online courses. He also took a lead role in an unsuccessful Republican school construction proposal that would have helped modernize school buildings.

Mr. Isakson said he wants to continue to focus on distance learning and Web-based education. He also said he wants to make sure the education committee works to find ways to help states develop highly qualified teachers and get such candidates through the pipeline quickly to ease shortages.

He also said he’d be working to stay on track with funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. “We’re halfway there on full funding of the federal mandate,” he said. “We’re taking good steps every year.”

Observers say they expect Mr. Isakson to have a significant impact in the Senate on education, in part because of his background on the state school board and on the House education committee. “I’m very confident that on education issues he will be a very key player in the Senate,” said Vic Klatt, the former House education aide.

Sen. Barack Obama

Sen. Barack Obama

Democrat of Illinois
Age: 43
Background: State senator; civil rights lawyer

A year ago, Sen. Barack Obama was a virtual unknown in national politics. Now this freshman from Illinois is a hot item in the Democratic Party, attracting loads of media attention and even early speculation that he could eventually run for president.

Mr. Obama, the only African-American in the Senate, emphasized in his campaign his support for expanding federal education aid from kindergarten through college, and he calls himself a champion of charter schools. He proposed creating a national network of teaching academies to add 25,000 new teachers to high-need urban and rural schools.

As a state senator, Mr. Obama sponsored several education bills, including measures to help train new teachers in high-need schools and provide bonuses to reward high-quality teachers in such schools.

During his widely praised keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston last year, he made several nods to education, about both the benefits for his family and his goals for the nation.

“If there is a child on the South Side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child,” he said. “It is that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper—that makes this country work.”

At the same time, Mr. Obama made clear that he believes government isn’t the sole answer.

“Go into any inner-city neighborhood,” he said, “and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach our kids to learn.”

Sen. Ken Salazar

Sen. Ken Salazar

Democrat of Colorado
Age: 49
Background: Colorado attorney general; secretary of state department of natural resources

Sen. Ken Salazar is expected to bring a dose of political centrism to Washington. This stance is reflected in his education policy by the Democrat’s backing for a pilot private-school-voucher program that passed in Colorado but has been blocked by state courts from taking effect. However he didn’t emphasize school choice in his campaign last fall.

Like many Democrats, he stressed spending more for education at all levels; he highlighted issues such as college affordability, smaller class sizes, and repair of school buildings. He argued that the No Child Left Behind Act needs to be “fully funded” and “fixed,” including the use of multiple measures to gauge student achievement under the law.

“While the purposes are worthy, the law has proven to be inflexible and unnecessarily punitive and must be fixed,” he said in a campaign statement. “The requirements of No Child Left Behind are important but are also costly. Washington has not kept up its end of the bargain, and has shortchanged schools by billions of dollars.”

Editorials from Colorado’s two largest newspapers, The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, both emphasized Mr. Salazar’s moderate political leanings and ability to work across the partisan divide.

“[M]ore often than not, we believe, Salazar’s moderate instincts will lead him to centrist positions,” the News editorialized last fall in endorsing him over Republican beer-company executive Pete Coors. In the Democratic primary, Mr. Salazar defeated Mike Miles, a school administrator.

Sen. Dan Boren

Rep. Dan Boren

Democrat of Oklahoma
Age: 31
Background: State House member

Rep. Dan Boren comes from an Oklahoma political dynasty. His father, David L. Boren, is a former Oklahoma governor and U.S. senator. His grandfather was a congressman from the state.

Now Mr. Boren is following those footsteps into a national role. He had served in the Oklahoma House since 2003, and even as a freshman lawmaker garnered a position as Democratic caucus chairman. While in the state House, Mr. Boren helped pass a teacher pay raise plan and a proposal to pay for teachers’ health care benefits.

During his 2004 congressional race, the National Education Association contributed $10,000 to his campaign, and he was endorsed by Oklahoma’s state schools superintendent. Mr. Boren said during the campaign that he agreed with most of the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act, but he had serious concerns about its implementation.

“No Child Left Behind should not just be a slogan used by the federal government to justify taking away local control,” he told the Muskogee Phoenix and Times-Democrat in May. Mr. Boren also opposes private school vouchers, calling them “risky schemes.”

Rep. Virginia Foxx

Rep. Virginia Foxx

Republican of North Carolina
Age: 61
Background: State senator; community college president

Rep. Virginia Foxx brings a wealth of education experience to her new job on Capitol Hill, from a decade serving on a local school board in North Carolina to leading a community college there.

The freshman lawmaker said the key lesson from her tenure on the Watauga County board of education was a need to protect local control of schools.

“The main thing I took away from that experience is that we cannot run the schools of this nation from Washington, and that what we need to do is give as much flexibility to local school boards as we possibly can,” she said in an interview.

Ms. Foxx said that during a “listening tour” in her congressional district this month, she heard a lot of complaints from educators about the No Child Left Behind Act, which critics say brings a heavy-handed federal role to schools and amounts to an unfunded federal mandate. She said she’s open to seeking changes in the law, but hasn’t made up her mind yet.

“What I have said to folks is, give me specifics,” she said. “You show me exactly where the unfunded mandates are. … It can’t be, ‘We just can’t meet those standards.’ It’s got to have backup to it. I’m very big on accountability.”

Ms. Foxx worked as an instructor and administrator at the community college and university level before serving as the president of Mayland Community College in Spruce Pine, N.C., from 1987 to 1994. In 1994, she was elected to the first of five terms in the state Senate.

She is expected to join the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Rep. Gwen Moore

Rep. Gwen Moore

Democrat of Wisconsin
Age: 53
Background: State senator; state assemblywoman

Rep. Gwen Moore may not be an educator, but as both the daughter of a teacher and now the mother of one, she’s learned a lot about schools.

With the backing of Wisconsin’s two state teachers’ unions, she’ll represent the Milwaukee area in the House, where she has pledged to seek repeal of the No Child Left Behind Act. The federal law has come under heavy fire from teachers’ unions.

“The No Child Left Behind Act has turned out to be more hype than help,” Ms. Moore’s campaign Web site declared. “The law created unfair new mandates that overburden our schools and the Bush administration has failed to adequately fund the programs under the act.”

Ms. Moore is the first African-American to represent Wisconsin in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In the state legislature, where Ms. Moore served for 15 years before entering Congress, she supported state efforts to reduce class sizes for students in low-income elementary schools, fought proposed cuts to early-childhood programs, and sought to expand state support to make college more affordable for minority students.

Stan Johnson, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, said Ms. Moore has long been an advocate for public schools.

“She understands the importance of public education, why we need to strengthen it and fund it,” said Mr. Johnson, whose union is an affiliate of the National Education Association. “That’s what galvanized our members to support her.”

Rep. John R. “Randy” Kuhl Jr.

Rep. John R. "Randy" Kuhl

Republican of New York
Age: 61
Background: Member of the state Senate and Assembly; lawyer

Rep. John R. “Randy” Kuhl Jr. sparked an unusual blend of support in his campaign for a seat in Congress, as his campaign won backing from the National Rifle Association, leading business groups, and a statewide teachers’ union.

A moderate Republican who for several years chaired the New York state Senate’s education committee, Mr. Kuhl helped develop a comprehensive teacher-recruitment and -retention strategy for New York, as well as a plan for school safety and violence prevention in the aftermath of the Columbine High School shootings in 1999. In all, he served in the Assembly—the legislature’s lower house—and the state Senate for about 25 years.

In explaining its support for the GOP lawmaker, the New York State United Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers with roughly half a million members, cited Mr. Kuhl’s support for public schools and universities in the legislature and his moderate political leanings.

David C. Smith, the superintendent of the 1,900-student Hornell, N.Y., city school district, was inspired to write to a local newspaper just days before Election Day to explain his decision to support Mr. Kuhl.

“As Randy will tell you, I have taken him to task over the years on issues such as education reform, state aid to schools, and standardized testing,” Mr. Smith wrote in his letter to the Star-Gazette newspaper of Elmira, N.Y. “But in all instances, I have found Randy to be knowledgeable, aware of the specific needs of the students and communities in this area, and receptive to input.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2005 edition of Education Week as The New Congress


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