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Schooling Time for New Crop of Hill Education Leaders

When Kline retires at the end of next year, it will mark a passing of the guard for congressional education leaders. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
When Kline retires at the end of next year, it will mark a passing of the guard for congressional education leaders. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

One of the more remarkable aspects of the bipartisan agreement on a replacement for the No Child Left Behind law, which the House is on course to embrace this week, is the team of authors’ relatively modest level of collective devotion to education policy.  

This is especially true on the south half of Capitol Hill, which is on the backside of a changing of the guard for House members who make improving our schools one of their big interests. The timing of the rewrite of federal policies on elementary and secondary education is notable for more than the fact that it’s eight years overdue. The legislation is getting done a year before the retirement of John Kline, the Minnesotan who was catapulted over eight more senior colleagues into the top Republican slot on the Education and the Workforce Committee six years ago.  

Once he’s gone, no one who’s run that committee will be left. George Miller, an education policy maven for three decades and the last Democratic chairman, retired in January. So did fellow Californian Howard “Buck” McKeon, the GOP’s chairman in 2006. And the chairman for the five years before that, John A. Boehner, of course gave up his Ohio seat and the speakership a month ago.  

Not a single Republican on the committee was there when No Child Left Behind became law in 2002 — with Boehner and Miller its principal House stewards — and three out of five seats on the GOP half of the dais are now occupied by members who’ve arrived in this decade.  

The brain drain on the other side is almost as complete: Robert C. Scott of Virginia, now the ranking member, and Susan A. Davis of California are the only Democrats who were part of the committee’s No Child markup. Half the party’s seats are occupied by members in office five years or less.  

Committee turnover of that magnitude is hardly unprecedented, given the collection of “wave” elections in recent years. But, along with the intensely politicized nature of the debate during the past decade over the federal role in pedagogy, it may help explain why the law’s revamping took quite so long.  

The original law got widespread praise for boosting expectations of the nation’s elementary, middle and high schools, but its intense focus on testing and its strict accountability standards soon earned the enmity of parents and educators alike.  

Republicans and Democrats generally agreed that the next iteration should return authority to states and local school districts and away from Washington. What bogged the debate down for years were disagreements about the future of school choice, the allocation of funding and ways to measure and combat the academic achievement gaps of low-income and minority children.  

Negotiators wrote a bill telling the states to set and enforce academic standards in their schools. No longer will the Education Department condition federal aid to the states on their adoption of Common Core academic standards.  

The federal schedule of 17 reading, math and science tests in grades 3 through 12 will remain, but the states will have leeway to decide how to use those scores in holding schools accountable. Districts identified by their states as under-performing will be eligible for federal money, but the federal government won’t prescribe what changes must be made.  

With those deals in hand, the conferees decided to abandon what most divided them: changes to the formula for dividing Title I federal aid among poor schools, and proposals for permitting federal dollars to help pay tuition at private or parochial schools.  

In broad strokes, the bill can fairly be described as the sort of bipartisan splitting of the differences that’s become a lost art in recent years — because it leaves unhappy the most ideologically pure at each end of the political spectrum. (In this case, the most conservative members lament the bill doesn’t give enough control back to the states, while the most liberal lawmakers say schools will still be able to deny civil rights to their students without consequence.)  

It’s also the case that the rewrite expires in four years, meaning the next president will have an opportunity to alter the shape of schools policy — and so will the next generation of congressional powers on education.  

Scott looks poised to remain the top Democrat on the House committee as long as he stays in office, while Virginia Foxx of North Carolina is easily the best bet to succeed Kline with the gavel. She’s already in the leadership as GOP Conference secretary, her colleagues will be eager to have at least one woman among the committee chairmen, and her career includes a dozen years on a local school board and eight years as president of a community college.  

There’s much more overt stability at the Senate Health, Labor Education and Pensions Committee. Although a third of its members are in their first terms, another five have been on the panel since No Child was written.  

GOP Chairman Lamar Alexander is just starting his third term and has a resume for his position without equal at the Capitol, having spent two years at the start of the 1990s as secretary of Education and three years before that as president of the University of Tennessee system.  

Patty Murray, who had other options but chose to become the top HELP Democrat this year, is a safe bet to win a fifth term in Washington next fall and has a solid rapport with Alexander.  

And yet a year is a lifetime in politics and, especially if there’s a Democratic takeover of the Senate, the leadership dominoes could include Murray moving elsewhere. If that happens, seniority would position Vermont’s Bernard Sanders for the chairmanship — an acceptable (and fascinating) consolation prize for pursuing progressive ideals on the assumption his presidential campaign doesn’t work out.

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