Federal

With GOP Advocate, Ed. Issues Could Gain Steam in Congress

By Alyson Klein — April 01, 2013 6 min read
U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor talks with 7th grader Ricardo Gonzalez-Sanchez during a tour of the Strive Preparatory School in Denver. Elmer Garcia-Chavez is his seatmate. Rep. Cantor has made education a centerpiece at several recent appearances.
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Education issues—which haven’t gotten a lot of attention from Congress over the past four years—may have picked up an unlikely but powerful advocate: U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor. As the majority leader in the House of Representatives, the Virginia Republican has a major role in setting the agenda for the chamber.

Throughout President Barack Obama’s first term, Mr. Cantor served as a key counterweight to the administration’s agenda on a broad swath of domestic issues, largely aligning himself with more conservative House Republicans on everything from health care to deficit reduction.

Lately, however, he’s turned his attention to education, signaling that it could be more prominent in this Congress. During the past four years, most of the action on K-12 has come from the U.S. Department of Education, not from legislators, who have been consumed with fiscal issues.

Mr. Cantor has spent the past couple of months visiting schools in education redesign hot spots, including a Roman Catholic school in New Orleans that’s recently benefited from a voucher program and a charter school in Denver. Such trips are unusual for a congressional leader. Top lawmakers typically don’t spend much time at schools outside their districts, particularly when no legislation is in play.

The lawmaker said he’s used these visits to talk to parents and students and has come to the conclusion that the federal government should “allow parents to have more of a voice in accessing [high quality] education,” particularly for children who “would otherwise be trapped in failing schools.”

Rep. Cantor didn’t explicitly say that he’d like to create vouchers using Title I funds for disadvantaged children or special education money. But he certainly hinted at it, saying he wants to see “if there’s some way that we could reallocate federal dollars to follow” children, particularly parents of “vulnerable populations” and “special-needs parents.”

Visits and Speeches

Rep. Cantor is not a complete newcomer to the K-12 arena—he introduced a school choice bill early in his dozen-year tenure on Capitol Hill, for example. But he hasn’t been seen as a big force on education during his time in Congress, in contrast to Speaker of the House John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who was an architect of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, when he chaired the House education panel, and is a longtime champion of the DC Opportunity Scholarship program. Mr. Cantor sees education as an issue the two leaders can collaborate on, said Rory Cooper, a spokesman for the majority leader.

But it’s unclear whether Mr. Cantor views the Obama administration—which has reshaped the federal role in K-12 policy through competitive grants and by offering states leeway on the No Child Left Behind Act—as another potential partner in education redesign. He disparaged the waiver plan saying that the administration “insisted on strings” in return for the flexibility. “We’re looking at other options that are available to those who are in desperate need of help.”

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said he’s glad to see Mr. Cantor shine a spotlight on education issues—the chairman believes it might smooth the path for education legislation, including a long-stalled bill to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

As the majority leader, Mr. Cantor plays a central role in scheduling bills for consideration.

“I think it’s a helpful thing,” Mr. Kline said in an interview. “Having the majority leader [behind a piece of legislation], there’s a very, very high likelihood that it could go to the floor.”

Mr. Cantor did not specify a timeline for moving ESEA renewal, which still must pass the House education committee in this Congress, to the floor.

Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the education panel, was skeptical of Mr. Cantor’s recent attention to K-12 issues. Rep. Miller has a long record of working on education redesign issues with Republicans, but so far, he said, Mr. Cantor hasn’t reached out to him.

“This is a lot of public relations, as opposed to any real concern about what’s actually happening to students,” Mr. Miller said in an interview.

If the majority leader was serious about moving a bipartisan bill, Mr. Miller said, he wouldn’t be talking about school choice—which Mr. Miller described as an outdated policy likely to stymie legislation, since the Senate is controlled by Democrats, who typically don’t support tuition vouchers.

“He’s a decade behind the times,” Mr. Miller said, adding that districts around the country now offer a robust menu of charter schools to give parents options. Republicans are “just checking boxes in terms of their own interest.”

Rep. Cantor rejected that idea.

“These parents don’t care how somebody in Washington would characterize this [effort],” he said. “They know [school choice] is working.”

Fresh Focus

The House majority leader’s focus on K-12 may be, in part, an outgrowth of the Republican response to the 2012 election, in which the GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, lost big to President Obama among Hispanics and women—two constituencies that tend to rank education as an issue of concern.

Republicans are working on “reconnecting with voters and various voter groups,” said John Bailey, who served as a White House aide under former President George W. Bush and as an adviser to the Romney campaign on K-12 issues.

“Education is one of those things that rises to the top” among voters, he said, in part because of its link to workforce readiness and the economy.

In bolstering his credentials on K-12, Rep. Cantor has also sought ideas closer to home, holding a roundtable on Feb. 27 with school superintendents and school board members in his central Virginia congressional district.

Mr. Cantor and his staff have always been accessible, said Robert Grimesey, the superintendent of the nearly 5,000-student Orange County, Va., district. But he said the meeting with the majority leader was different, in part because the superintendents didn’t ask for it—Mr. Cantor did.

Mr. Cantor found plenty of agreement on the need to shrink the federal footprint on education policy, Mr. Grimesey said. But the local education leaders made it clear that they weren’t too happy with sequestration, the automatic, across-the-board cuts to federal funding, including aid for K-12, that have begun to take effect.

‘Gateway’ Strategy

Mr. Cantor talked about issues that go beyond school choice in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, earlier this year. For instance, he touted “weighted student funding,” which allows dollars to follow students based on their needs. And he offered support to a proposal crafted by U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., that would bring more transparency to the college-selection process by requiring colleges to publish data on the employment outcomes of their graduates.

School choice is a kind of “gateway” issue for Republicans when it comes to education, he said.

But the focus on choice may help Mr. Cantor go even deeper on a broader range of education issues, Mr. Bailey said.

“To have the majority leader of the House visiting more schools and asking more questions and linking education to other issues, ... only good can come of it,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 03, 2013 edition of Education Week as Cantor Raises Profile on Schooling Issues

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