Teaching Profession

Lawmaker’s Retirement to Open K-12 Leadership Void

By Alyson Klein — January 17, 2014 6 min read
U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., joins President George W. Bush for the signing of the No Child Left Behind Act on Jan. 8, 2002. Among those joining them are, from left, are Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio.

U.S. Rep. George Miller’s decision not to seek another term after decades as an education-policy powerhouse on Capitol Hill will create a void in Congress, at a time when other pivotal legislative positions are likely to change hands in both the House and Senate.

The California Democrat, who announced his retirement Monday after nearly 40 years in Congress, has pushed through game-changing legislation from the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 to a complete reimagining of the federal student lending program in 2010. And he is stepping down as Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee, is also set to retire.

Former members of Congress and congressional aides from all parts of the political spectrum say Rep. Miller is a rarity among education leaders, combining a wonk’s policy expertise with the shrewdness of a seasoned political operative, who has a commitment to educational equity for poor and minority students. They see no one on the scene who can immediately step into his shoes.

“You could always count on George to understand the issues, and sometimes to help educate the rest of us, who may not have been as steeped in federal education policy as he has been,” said Rep. Mike Castle, a Republican from Delaware who served with Rep. Miller for nearly two decades on the House education committee. “He’s very strong in his beliefs. If you agreed with him, he didn’t care if you were a Democrat or a Republican. His concern for education was the trump card.”

Mr. Castle, now a partner with DLA Piper, an international law firm, said, “It’s hard to see that there’s any one person who has the depth of knowledge and commitment that he had.”

But in more recent years, Rep. Miller appears to have grown frustrated with the rancorous, polarized climate on Capitol Hill, which led to last year’s government shutdown.

“I have a pretty good legislative history and a pretty good legislative history on bipartisan [measures] on tough issues,” he said in a recent interview with Education Week. “This is not really a legislating Congress.”

Champion for Equity

First elected to Congress in 1974 after earning a law degree and serving as a California state legislative aide, Rep. Miller was one of the first Democrats to embrace policies, such as merit pay for effective teachers, and a robust role for the federal government in accountability. He remains among their most vocal champions in the Democratic caucus.

Chairman, George Miller, during a meeting of the U.S. House of Representatives Education & Labor Committee on Capitol Hill, Sept. 30, 2009, in Washington, D.C.

He’s helped sell those ideas—which aren’t always popular with traditional Democratic allies such as teachers’ unions—to his colleagues on the liberal side of the chamber, aided in part by his close relationship with his fellow Californian, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader and former speaker of the House. Rep. Miller also has strong ties to other Capitol Hill power brokers—he shares a townhouse with Democratic Sens. Richard Durbin, of Illinois, the majority whip, and Charles Schumer of New York, another Senate leader.

And, despite his reputation as a liberal lion on issues such as environmental policy and labor, Rep. Miller has been able to work with his GOP colleagues to craft bipartisan legislation.

Rep. Miller’s prominence as a progressive came in handy in 2001 when he worked closely with the Bush administration and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., on passage of the NCLB law, said Sandy Kress, who served as an education policy advisor to President George W. Bush during the legislation’s development. Lawmakers on the left were willing to hear the GOP White House out on controversial issues such as high-stakes testing in part because Rep. Miller supported them, Mr. Kress said.

“They gave us the opportunity to talk with Democrats so that people don’t think the other side has horns and a tail,” said Mr. Kress, who is now a fellow at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas.

And when he became chairman of the House education committee in 2007, Rep. Miller visited the districts of Democratic freshmen who had criticized the NCLB law in their campaigns, meeting with educators and union leaders to show that he shared their concerns about issues such as a lack of funding for the measure.

Still, at times, Rep. Miller’s embrace of policies such as merit pay have landed him in hot water with traditional Democratic constituencies. In 2007, he released a draft bill reauthorizing the NCLB law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would have encouraged districts to take student outcomes into account when determining which teachers would be eligible for bonus pay. That sparked vigorous opposition from the California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the 3 million-member National Education Association.

A half dozen years later, Rep. Miller hasn’t backed off his insistence that student outcomes play a role in teacher accountability. In fact, he included similar language in his own legislation renewing the NCLB law, unveiled last year.

Dennis Van Roekel, the NEA president, acknowledged that his union “didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Rep. Miller,” but added, “I don’t think it’s a negative to fight with people about how to get to a common goal. … Rep. Miller was always right in his vision for education, and for the role unions play. I admired the heck out of him.”

Impact on ESEA

More recently, as Congress has debated the now-stalled renewal of the ESEA, Rep. Miller has been among a handful of lawmakers pushing for a clear role for the federal government in prodding states to set goals for student achievement, including for subgroups of students. And he’s raised questions about implementation of the Obama administration’s ESEA waivers, pushing the U.S. Department of Education to ensure that the law’s goal of closing the achievement gap doesn’t get lost in the push to give states greater flexibility.

Last summer, during floor debate over a GOP-backed ESEA-renewal bill that would no longer require federally-directed sanctions for schools that miss achievement targets, Rep. Miller gave a fiery speech on the theme of educational equity for all students. He went over his allotted time, but refused to be silenced, even as the speaker’s gavel cut him off, yelling that “children are running out of time in this nation!”

“I could have written his speech,” said former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who worked with Rep. Miller to develop the legislation as a senior White House aide. “He was a firebrand on behalf of poor and minority kids.”

The NCLB law is far from Rep. Miller’s only education accomplishment. As House education committee chairman from 2007 to 2010 he was a key author of the education portion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The economic-stimulus law poured some $100 billion into education, and included the legislative language that became the Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation grant programs. He also oversaw a major makeover of the student lending program.

Leadership Changes

Rep. Miller’s retirement, and that of Sen. Harkin, highlights the uncertainty over K-12 policy leadership in Congress.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, could be in his final term as the top Republican on the panel—he would need to get a waiver from congressional leadership to remain in his post. Rep. Kline, has a collegial relationship with Rep. Miller and sees eye-to-eye with him on the federal role in teacher evaluation. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., an outspoken skeptic on the federal role in education, could take the helm of the committee, if he departs. Meanwhile, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., a former chairman of the House education committee who worked successfully with Mr. Miller on legislation including a reauthorization of Higher Education Act in 2008, has also announced plans to retire.

And while there are other senior Democrats on the House education panel who could take Rep. Miller’s spot as ranking member, Charles Barone, who served as a top aide to the congressman during the development of the NCLB law, said that none of them has “that combination of talent and passion. In some ways he is irreplaceable.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 2014 edition of Education Week as A K-12 Titan in Congress to Move On

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