When your editor took time yesterday to discuss how infighting among congressional Republicans would make any reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act unlikely, he didn’t fully expect that the sparring would doom the prospects of John Kline getting his own plan passed out of the House today. Yet House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman, who has long posed himself as a stalwart adherent of movement conservatism (even as he champions increased subsidies for special education ghettos and evisceration of accountability for federal spending), is battling with true-believers within his own caucus over whether his plan for reauthorizing the law was adherent enough to their interpretation of ideology.
Earlier today, House Republican leadership recessed debate on Kline’s No Child plan, the Student Success Act, without so much as a vote on the full bill after conservative true-believers within the caucus threatened to vote against it. The bill has since been withdrawn from further consideration.
Spurred in part by their ire toward Speaker John Boehner (against whom they spurred a revolt last month), a manifesto issued last week by a group of even-less sensible erstwhile school reformers such as Hoover Institution’s Williamson Evers and Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation, and the not-so-subtle threats of being primaried by Heritage’s political action wing and the Club for Growth, the true-believers claim Kline’s plan doesn’t do enough to “[get] Washington out of the business of running America’s schools” as his committee’s mouthpieces proclaim.
With at least 31 House Republicans likely to vote against House Resolution 5, Kline is scrambling to get at least some of those members back on board to pass it. In fact, he even canceled a trip to a school in Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood to whip up support. He needs all the help he can get. House Democrats have already made clear that they will only support a proposed No Child reauthorization that they cobbled together over the past two days. President Obama’s announcement that he will veto H.R. 5 if it somehow managed to gain Senate approval (which was going to be unlikely anyway), along with the desire among congressional Democrats to deny Republicans any legislative victory (as well as stop them from rolling back Obama’s legacy on education policy) has all but assured that no Democrat will come to Kline’s side.
Kline also can’t count on either Boehner or Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. They are far too busy battling with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell over a version of a funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security that leaves out a poison pill kiboshing the Obama Administration’s executive order temporarily staying deportation for five million undocumented emigres. Given that Boehner and McCarthy will likely have to pass that legislation over the ire of Nativists and conservative true-believers, they are unlikely to do more on Kline’s behalf other than some tepid vote-whipping. [Update (5:25 p.m.): Boehner and McCarthy couldn’t even gain passage of a stopgap measure to finance Homeland Security operations for a three-month period. Fifty two of 243 House Republicans voted against the bill.]
Meanwhile Kline can’t really do much to appease conservative true-believers without making his No Child reauthorization plan even less likely to win passage.
Centrist Democrat school reformers along with the more-sensible of movement conservative counterparts, governors from both parties, and civil rights-oriented players are opposed to proposals from true-believers to abolish No Child’s testing provision, which rightfully requires states to administer reading, math, and science exams in exchange for federal education subsidies. Such a move would also lead moderate Republicans more-supportive of reform (and mindful of support from the chambers of commerce who back overhauling public education) to abandon their support.
Given that the idea comes from more-rabid school choice activists such as Evers and Burke (along with University of Arkansas’ Jay P. Greene) who want to shield voucher programs from any accountability, and would get the backing of traditionalists (who oppose testing altogether), eviscerating the testing mandate exposes Kline and House Republicans to charges (from other conservatives) of hypocrisy and being in bed with unions.
As it is, Kline can now be accused of being both an apostate from conservatism and being a stooge for teachers’ unions after the House voted last night to approve an amendment from Rep. Bob Goodlatte backed by Club for Growth and NEA to allow districts to use unreliable local assessments (including those drawn up by teachers) in place of state standardized testing regimes. The amendment not only makes a mockery of accountability by using tests that wouldn’t pass anyone’s smell test, it even violates both state constitutions (which put states in charge of public education and therefore, in charge of all testing) and the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Hunter v. Pittsburgh (which affirms the positions of districts and municipalities as arms of state governments).
Kline also can’t allow H.R. 5 to be amended to include a plan to voucherize Title 1 dollars; one version of the idea was withdrawn during markup of the bill and kept off the list of amendments to be considered by the full body after both Democrats and moderate Republicans strenuously opposed it. Your editor has no particular problem with such a plan so long as it also includes requiring states to allow the rest of school funding to follow children to any schools their families choose. Otherwise the entire exercise won’t work for children. But Kline couldn’t incorporate such a provision without stoking claims of federal overreach from other movement conservatives; that the federal government couldn’t mandate such a move even if either Kline or the Obama Administration wanted to also makes the entire effort an exercise in futility.
Given the state of play — including Boehner’s need to stave off further ire from conservative true-believers over the eventual passage of McConnell’s plan for funding Homeland Security — Kline won’t likely get H.R. 5 passed out of the House. For the Minnesota Republican, who is in his last term chairing Education and the Workforce, it could mean his five-year-long effort to eviscerate No Child and its powerful accountability provisions will likely come to an ignominious end if he can’t find enough votes to win passage. [Boehner, who cowrote No Child during his tenure chairing the committee Kline now runs, is probably quietly happy about it.]
The defeat of H.R. 5 would also be an even more-humiliating political loss than the one he faced two years ago when 70 of his fellow Republicans, at the behest of Indian tribes in their districts and Native education groups, passed an amendment to retain Title VII as its own funding stream. It also means Kline cedes control of the process of reauthorizing No Child, such as it is, to his colleague (and rival) in the Senate, Lamar Alexander, whose own plan for eviscerating the law’s accountability provisions is no better. But given that Kline can’t even get his own plan passed, along with the even greater obstacles Alexander faces from Senate Democrats (who can block his efforts at will), the chances of any No Child reauthorization coming from Capitol Hill are slim and none.
Your editor is unsurprised by this moment of movement conservative and Republican Party fratricide. There has been an endless cycle of purity-testing that rivals the battles within both the conservative movement and the Grand Old Party that were the norm between the Second World War and Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980. The recriminations over the excesses, perceived and otherwise, of George W. Bush’s tenure as president (as well as the defeat of Republican nominee John McCain by Obama seven years ago) even extend to education policy as movement conservatives otherwise unconcerned with education policy are accusing conservative reform outfits such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute of being apostates. In short, no different than the battles within Democrat circles over reform during the previous decade.
Kline, who whipped up the frenzy of movement conservatives against No Child during his tenure as chairman of Education and the Workforce (and before that as ranking Republican) has now found himself on the business end of it. Conservative reform outfits such as Fordham and players such as Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, who supported Kline’s plan to eviscerate accountability (and have essentially accused with the rest of the school reform movement of race-baiting), also find themselves isolated. They now face new charges of being insufficiently conservative from ideological fellow-travelers who want even further rollbacks on reform. Turnabout is, well, turnabout.
Certainly centrist Democrat reformers and others can enjoy this episode of Republican and movement conservative seppuku if they so choose. But they better get to work advancing systemic reform at the state level. Or else this temporary victory will lead to a greater loss for our children.