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Top House Republican on Education Talks ESEA, Race to Top

It's looking more and more like the Republicans may take the House of Representatives when the 2010 midterm elections roll around in November. There is even a chance that they could take over the U.S. Senate. Bottom line: It seems certain that they'll hold more seats in Congress.

What could that mean for education policy and spending? Well, for starters, if the GOP takes the House, Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, would likely become chairman of the panel.

Rep. Kline is one of the Big 8 lawmakers the Obama administration is courting in its push to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. He will be a major player on ESEA reauthorization no matter what happens in the November election.

I interviewed Kline this week about his priorities and where his caucus stands. Kline declined to answer any questions based on the premise that he could be leading the education committee come January. He told me that would be putting the cart before the horse, since the election is nearly two months away. He was, however, willing to discuss some top education policy issues.

Kline casts a wary eye on the federal role in championing the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The effort, which resulted in the creation of reading and mathematics standards that so far have been adopted by nearly 40 states, was state-led, through the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. Kline said he has no problem with, say, Minnesota and Wisconsin, getting together and coming up with their own set of more rigorous standards. But the federal incentives for adopting the standards make him—and many of his fellow House Republicans—uneasy.

What exactly were those? States that competed for a slice of the federal Race to the Top Fund got extra points for their participation in the common standards effort. And U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has proposed tying the Title I grants given to districts to help disadvantaged students to states' adoption of either the common core standards, or to college- and career-ready standards developed with state institutions of higher education.

"We're watching this very closely," Rep. Kline said. "If we are, in fact, putting in a de facto national curriculum, my caucus will rebel. I'm very leery when [the action] shifts over to the U.S. Department of Education providing either rewards or punishment" for adopting certain standards. "That's dangerous," he said.

He's equally skeptical of the administration's $350 million program aimed at helping states develop common, richer assessments. He wants to ensure that it doesn't become a situation in which the Education Department is involved in creating the tests.

"That's not our job," he said. "If you're starting to put the federal government in charge of assessments, standards you're moving in a way that I don't think Americans want."

The Obama administration also asked for $1.35 billion in the fiscal 2011 budget to continue the Race to the Top program for an additional year and extend it to districts, but Kline wouldn't support that. He thinks the program was too rigid and imposed federal policy preferences on states.

"If you look at Race to the Top, there were over 100 boxes" states had to consider, Kline said. "That's not exactly more flexibility. ... This is the U.S. Department of Education, putting [out its] view of what needs to be done. ... It's not the states deciding. It's not local control." Instead of more money for Race to the Top, he said, "what we need is a good reauthorization" of ESEA.

He also said the process for determining who got the funding in the Race to the Top competition "included some subjectivity." And he's not pleased that the grading scale "gave more weight to teacher union buy-in than a good charter school law."

Over the summer, Kline's staff has been working with staff members from the office of Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, on ESEA renewal, although he pointed out that the legislative calendar leaves very little time to move a bill.

In the meantime, Kline—who wasn't in Congress when the current version of the ESEA, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, was passed—has been talking to superintendents and administrators in his district to get their views on ESEA. So far, he hasn't heard a giant groundswell of support for the administration's blueprint for renewing the law, released back in March, he said.

"They're frankly not real thrilled with the blueprint," Kline said. Although educators in his district want to see a fix for NCLB, there are "objections to anything ... that comes in and tells them how to do their job. ... One of the things that we've been insisting on is that we have to make it simpler, easier to comply with and more flexible, therefore putting some meaning back into local control."

Kline, who voted against both the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the recent edujobs bill, doesn't think more fiscal stabilization funding for states is the right way to go. But there is an area he'd like to see the feds target for increases: special education.

"I would not expect that there would be more bailouts and more stimulus. Look at the economic mess that we're in" despite the spending, he said. But he said that increasing federal funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act would give school districts some stability in what is often a costly area.

Kline also thinks Congress should be doing more oversight of the administration, including over how the federal stimulus money was spent.

Still, Kline said there are areas on which he and Secretary Duncan agree, including the need to expand the number of high-quality charter schools and the need to "break the tenure stranglehold that the teachers unions have had all across the country. ... We both agree that we need some way to remove the bad teachers and reward the good teachers."

I asked about his working relationships with Secretary Duncan and Rep. Miller. Kline gave Duncan high marks for ensuring that initial talks on ESEA renewal have been bipartisan.

"I think it's been a good relationship" with Secretary Duncan, Kline said. "I have said repeatedly that I'm very appreciative of Secretary Duncan's approach ... He was the one who pushed for the first, second, and third Big 8 meetings ... I am appreciative of that."

And he said that Rep. Miller "forthright and forthcoming" on ESEA. "We both understand that we're going to have work together on this."

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