Few would have thought that John Kline would be just a month away from assuming the most-important education policymaking role in Congress — that of Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. California Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon, who had been chairman of the committee before the Democrats took control of the federal lower house, was the one most-likely to be in position for reassuming the job. But thanks to President Barack Obama’s appointment of New York Republican John McHugh (and McKeon’s successful effort to replace him as Ranking Republican on the House Armed Forces Committee), Kline has gotten the opportunity to reshape the Republican agenda on education, reversing support for the GOP’s most-important stamp on education policy, the No Child Left Behind Act, and pursuing a local control-oriented platform.
Given that Kline’s own district is suburban and very much filled with folks opposed to No Child, this shouldn’t be a surprise. The implications of Kline’s possible (and likely) ascent is analyzed further in my latest column for The American Spectator.
Your editor got the opportunity to interview the presumptive Education and Labor Committee chairman, who was back in Minnesota campaigning for office. Whether or not one agrees with Kline’s positions (or with his underlying thinking), he gives some eloquent answers that both centrist Democrat and conservatives should consider.
What is the congressional Republican agenda on education?
The Republican position has been to abide some basic principles. There is a widespread opinion that No Child Left Behind is too broad. Another is parental choice. We want teachers to be able to teach without too much intrusion.
[No Child is] a very large intrusion into education, into areas of education that the federal government shouldn’t be involved. This isn’t just Republican dissatisfaction. When I talk to teachers, parents, superintendents, my colleagues, everyone wants to fix No Child Left behind. There is great dissatisfaction with No Child Left Behind.
My staff has worked all summer long with our colleagues on the Democratic side. Unfortunately we have run out of time. That work is still very important because when we come back for the 112th Congress, we have to fix No Child Left Behind.
In your mind, what parts of No Child are particularly troublesome?
[Adequate Yearly Progress], where I’m from in Minnesota, that guarantees that every public school in America is failing. We have to go in and fix it. When you talk to superintendents, they say that they resent being told by the federal government that they are failing.
But hasn’t AYP actually done more to focus education on addressing the neglect of poor and minority kids by those superintendents and districts?
There were well-meaning people who put together No Child Behind. And they thought some measure was needed to spotlight those schools. [AYP] has certainly been helpful. But there is a great deal of disagreement and dissatisfaction about how AYP should be measured. The question of accountability is one that needs to be sorted through.
So what would you put in place of AYP and other No Child accountability measures?
We want taxpayers to get their money’s worth. We want to have some measure of what kids are doing. And we want to get rid of some programs that are counterproductive and ensure a better return on the dollar. But it is not easy because you are coming from two different perspectives. [Republicans] are wary of too much power coming out of the federal government. The longstanding Republican position is to hold back the federal government. There isn’t universal agreement on how to fix it.
Throughout the past year, you have argued for a return to local control. At the same time, you argue for greater school choice. Yet school districts oppose — and would fight against — any expansion of choice. Doesn’t the two positions prove to be mutually contradictory?
We should be giving more choices than fewer. For example, the D.C. Opportunity System program is one experiment we support. It would not be practical for the federal government to fund a voucher program. Bu we support more choice. Now, you are right that there isn’t stakeholder agreement on how to fix education. There would be some pushback from some elements of the public school systems [against choice].
You have been skeptical of Race to the Top. Why?
I think it was irresponsible of Congress to give [Secretary of Education Duncan] $5 billion with no strings attached. Race to the Top did some pretty bold things and some of them were in line with the Republican agenda like expanding charter schools. Other parts can be problematic. When you begin moving to a common assessment, if you’re only going reward states for adopting common standards, then you are moving into creating a common curriculum. Many of us are afraid that with common curriculum, are moving to a national curriculum. If you look at the second tranche of Race to the Top, only the states that adopted common standards would get Race to the Top money.
This year, President Obama asked for $1.3 billion more for Race to the Top this budget year. Why should Congress give more money to a program that hasn’t proven itself? Race to the Top money is just one-time money. A lot of states didn’t get it.. And the states who got the money, I’m not sure that they would have done [undertaken the required reforms] if they didn’t need the money.
What about the competitive grant process at the heart of Race to the Top. Would you support efforts to expand that approach to other funding?
Republicans are going to be very leery of giving Department of Education granting authority over Title I money. It politicizes Title I. ‘If you do it my way, you get money; if you don’t do it , you won’t get money.’ Republicans are going to be very leery of politicizing programs because administrations will change.
What are your thoughts about what President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan are doing when it comes to dealing with teacher quality issues?
You have an interesting situation with a Democratic administration and a Democrat as secretary of education saying that [teachers unions] have to give and you have to have some way of rewarding good teachers. Secretary Duncan and the administration brought out the idea of breaking up the ironclad rules on tenure. I have told them “If you can do this, God Bless you. Because Republicans can’t do it.” It would be expected [that Republicans want to abolish tenure]. There are Democrats on the other side who are allied with the teachers unions, who oppose any end to tenure, which I disagree with. There are folks in [House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller’s] caucus who wouldn’t think of crossing the teachers unions.