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Speaker Ryan Will Leave ESSA Passage, New Tax Break for Choice as K-12 Legacy


Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who announced Wednesday that he will not seek re-election to his seat in Congress this fall, will leave behind at least two notable education achievements: He ensured passage of a new federal education law in 2015, and gave a boost to parents seeking resources for school choice through a tax-reform bill approved in 2017.

Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, was first elected in 1998 and took over as speaker in October 2015, replacing Ohio Republican Rep. John Boehner. He backed key tenets of conservative education policy, including a lighter federal footprint on schools as well as choice. 

Less than two months after assuming the speaker's job, he oversaw House passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the first overhaul of the main federal K-12 law since the No Child Left Behind Act was signed in 2002. Ryan was a fan of ESSA because it was drafted through regular congressional procedure and had bipartisan support. The legislation also provided states and districts more policy flexibility in several key areas such as teacher evaluation and school improvement.

In addition, ESSA may have been helped by Ryan's strong relationship with Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who was chairman of the House education committee and one of ESSA's primary authors (Kline subsequently retired from Congress).

Before ESSA passed, Ryan expressed his dislike for the way the Obama administration used waivers to get states to embrace its policy priorities, such as using test scores in teacher evaluation, in exchange for being allowed to skip certain provisions of No Child Left Behind. Those waivers may have helped hasten the end of NCLB and the start of the ESSA era.

Ryan championed tax legislation that was signed by President Donald Trump last year, and included in that law was a change that allowed money in 529 college savings plans to be spent on K-12, including private school tuition. Ryan has backed school choice since he came to Congress in 1999. During a speech in 2012, when he was the GOP's nominee for vice president, Ryan told an audience that "choice should be available to every parent in our country, wherever they live." 

The House education committee also approved a revamp of the Higher Education Act late last year on Ryan's watch, but momentum for HEA reauthorization appears to have stalled in this Congress. Before he became speaker, Ryan championed tighter restrictions on Pell Grant eligibility. 

In 2013, when he was chairman of the House budget committee, Ryan worked out a deal with then-Senate budget committee chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to put off automatc cuts to federal spending known as sequestration. But Ryan was criticial of the U.S. Department of Education's budget during the Obama administration: In a 2014 budget blueprint, for example, he sought to consolidate several federal programs.

And in 2012, then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Ryan's budget vision would lead to billions in cuts for Title I and federal special education grants

Ryan will serve out the remainder of his term in the House. 

Photo: Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., meets with reporters following a closed-door Republican strategy session on Capitol Hill last month. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP-File)

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