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Top K-12 Senator Tom Harkin to Retire

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Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who sits at the top of the Senate panels that deal with both K-12 spending and policy, isn't planning to seek re-election in 2014.

This is a very big deal: Harkin is arguably the most powerful lawmaker in Congress when it comes to education. He oversees the committee that deals with education policy, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, whose job it is to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Higher Education Act, and pretty much any other major bill that deals with schools. Plus, he's the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that writes the bills funding all K-12 programs.

Harkin, who was a key author of the education portions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, is a big fan of special education. (In fact, his late brother was a special education student.) He's also a major champion of federal funding for school facilities and told reporters that he was "not a happy camper" when money for school construction was taken out of the stimulus law.

So what does this mean for education legislation—including No Child Left Behind reauthorization? Well, this session of Congress will be Harkin's last chance ever to put his stamp on a rewrite of the law, something he's listed as a priority. Harkin has already made a start, working with Sen. Michael B. Enzi, then the Senate education committee's top Republican on a bipartisan revamp of the law back 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. Presumably, having started that work, it seems Harkin would want to try and finish the job, especially since his home state of Iowa didn't get a waiver to get out from under the mandates of the current NCLB law.

This could set up an interesting dynamic with the Obama administration, which appears to be hoping that Congress will hold off for awhile when it comes to ESEA so that its waivers, which have been issued to more than 30 states, have a chance to work. Also, the administration wasn't exactly cheerleading Harkin's ESEA reauthorization bill, which it felt didn't push states to set ambitious enough goals for student achievement, especially when it comes to the achievement of traditionally overlooked subgroups of students (such as racial minorities). Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was also bummed that Harkin's bill didn't require districts to evaluate teachers based on student achievement.

Of course, if Harkin decides not to move on ESEA, he's got a lot of other education laws he can work on, including renewal of the Higher Education Act and an update of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. (More in this story.)

Harkin's retirement also sets up a round of jockeying over who will take over the Senate HELP committee and his appropriations subcommittee. A new chairman in either role is going to have big implications for K-12. Stay tuned.

Photo: Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, right, talks with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R- Tenn., on Capitol Hill last week prior to the start of the committee's hearing on assessing America's mental health system. (Cliff Owen/AP)

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