Teaching Profession

Top K-12 Leader in Congress Sets Retirement Date

By Alyson Klein — February 01, 2013 5 min read
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, talks about the fiscal cliff negotiations with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 28.
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The retirement in two years of the most powerful lawmaker in Congress when it comes to education policy and funding—U.S. Senator Tom Harkin—will create a major leadership turnover that affects everything from the future of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to special education issues, which the Iowa Democrat has championed for decades.

Sen. Harkin sits at the top of both the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee—which oversees education legislation—and the Senate appropriations subcommittee that deals with K-12 funding. He announced Jan. 26 that he would not run for a sixth term in 2014, and it’s unclear who will take over those influential roles after his departure.

Implications for ESEA?

Education advocates couldn’t yet say what Sen. Harkin’s move will mean for the long-stalled renewal of the ESEA, the current version of which is the No Child Left Behind Act, or the legislative logjam that faces his committee. Congress must also act to reauthorize a whole host of other education laws, including the Higher Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Sen. Harkin has already made a start on ESEA, working on a bipartisan update of the law with Wyoming Sen. Michael B. Enzi, who was the Senate education committee’s top Republican in 2011. The legislation got the support of three of the panel’s GOP members, but never made it to the floor of the Senate. And it was slammed by many in the civil rights community—including a number of groups representing students in special education—for not pushing states to set ambitious enough goals for student achievement, especially when it comes to typically overlooked subgroups of students, such as racial minorities.

The Obama administration appears to be hoping that Congress will hold off for a while when it comes to acting on ESEA so that its waivers from provisions of the law, which have been issued to more than 30 states, have a chance to work. What’s more, the administration wasn’t exactly pushing Sen. Harkin’s ESEA reauthorization bill, in part because it didn’t require districts to evaluate teachers based on student achievement. It’s also unlikely that Sen. Harkin’s bill could have made it through a GOP-controlled House of Representatives bent on slimming down the size of the federal role in education.

Whether Sen. Harkin gets to use his final congressional session to put his own stamp on a rewrite of the ESEA may hinge in part on his willingness to challenge the Obama administration, and to work across the aisle with Republicans, said Vic Klatt, a former longtime GOP aide to Republicans on the House education committee.

“It depends [in part] on whether he is going to feel obligated to be lock step with the administration,” said Mr. Klatt, who now works as a principal at Penn Hill Group, a government relations organization in Washington. “Traditionally, in a second term, members of a president’s party are willing to break [with the administration] a little more.”

And Alice Johnson Cain, who served as an aide to both House and Senate Democrats, speculated that Sen. Harkin might well decide to concentrate on another major bill: reauthorization of the IDEA, which was most recently updated in 2004.

“If Senator Harkin said he wanted to do one final reauthorization of IDEA as part of his legacy, there would probably be a lot of openness to that on both sides of the aisle,” said Ms. Cain, who now serves as the vice president of Teach Plus, a nonprofit organization in Boston that works to empower educators to have a voice in policy. “He is the undisputed champion on that issue.”

Disability Issues

Special education has been a big focus for Sen. Harkin, who was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1974, then the Senate in 1984. He was a key author of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was first enacted in 1990. The landmark law required buildings and public transportation to be wheelchair-accessible, and called for accommodations for people with disabilities in the workplace.

And, year after year, he’s sought to provide full federal funding for the IDEA, which covers the cost of educating students in special education. On Capitol Hill, Sen. Harkin put his ideals into practice, making it a priority to identify and hire talented staffers with disabilities, Ms. Cain said. His efforts on the issue have been inspired in part by his late brother, who was deaf.

“Everyone in the community knew that this was coming at some point but it’s still been like a shock wave,” said Lindsay Jones, the senior director of policy and advocacy services for the Council for Exceptional Children, in Arlington, Va. “A world without Sen. Harkin is hard to imagine.”

And when it came to ESEA, Sen. Harkin has been interested in hearing a range of viewpoints and learning as much as he could, even about relatively new areas of policy, such as charter schools and aggressive turnarounds, said Michele McLaughlin, who served as an aide to the Senate education committee when it crafted the 2011 reauthorization bill.

“I think his willingness to engage and give everyone a fair hearing has been really important,” said Ms. McLaughlin, who is now the executive director of the Knowledge Alliance, an advocacy group in Washington representing public and private research organizations.

Successor Unclear

It’s too early to say who will replace Sen. Harkin in either of his influential leadership roles. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., would be next in line to take over the Senate education panel—assuming Democrats retain control of the Senate after the 2014 midterm elections. But that would mean giving up her coveted position as chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and advocates don’t expect she’d make the jump.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a former prekindergarten teacher with a long interest in education issues, would be next in line for both the Senate spending subcommittee and for the education policy committee—but she’d also have to give up her job at the helm of the Senate Budget Committee. If she did takeover the education policy committee, she could occupy the same powerful perch Sen. Harkin has now, overseeing both panels.

But if Sen. Murray declined to take over the education policy committee, Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats, and considers himself a socialist, is next in line. He’s followed by Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., who is interested in early-childhood education.

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as Top K-12 Leader in Congress Sets Departure Date


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