Help Wanted: School Choice Leaders in the 109th Congress

Published February 1, 2005

As the 109th Congress convened in January, Capitol Hill supporters of educational freedom were nervously surveying the likely composition and leadership of the Senate and House education committees, which are crucial to further federal backing of school choice initiatives.

At the House Education and the Workforce Committee, the continued strong leadership of Chairman John Boehner (R-OH) was reassuring to advocates of choice. Under leadership term-limit rules, the upcoming session is expected to be the final one for Boehner as chairman of the committee.

Boehner has been a staunch advocate of such advances for choice as school vouchers in Washington, DC and parental options such as private tutoring under the No Child Left Behind Act. However, several members of Congress who were strong advocates for choice on the committee during the 108th Congress will not be returning, for a variety of reasons.

Two consistent supporters of choice–Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA)–will not be back on House Education because they won election to the U.S. Senate. A third–Max Burns (R-GA)–lost his race for reelection. Senior legislative staff speculated also that Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) might consider taking a leave from the Education Committee to concentrate on his new duties as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Change in Priorities Possible

On the Senate side, Judd Gregg (R-NH) has left the chairmanship of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee to take over the helm of the Budget Committee. That heightened the concerns of choice supporters because Gregg has been one of the most influential backers of educational freedom in Congress. Gregg has consistently supported the concept of portability, the idea that public money appropriated for a child’s education ought to follow the child to any suitable school of the family’s choice.

Hill insiders were unsure whether Gregg’s expected replacement as HELP chairman, Mike Enzi of Wyoming (R), would be anywhere close to Gregg as a champion of school choice, or even whether he would be friendly to the cause at all. In addition to concern over some of his staff appointees, a statement Enzi issued in December outlining his HELP priorities raised red flags.

In that statement, Enzi placed much of his focus on reauthorization of the 1998 Workforce Investment Act (WIA). He said he “looks forward to developing a comprehensive approach to education and training that promotes a lifetime of learning for the American workforce and ensures our long-time competitiveness in the global market.” Not once did Enzi mention parental choice as a priority.

Among other legislative priorities, Enzi mentioned the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act and the Higher Education Affordability, Access, and Opportunity Act. The latter, which would pressure colleges and universities to limit tuition and fee increases, would be part of congressional reauthorization of the 1968 Higher Education Act, a chore the 108th Congress failed to accomplish.

Within that context, Enzi said he “would like to pass legislation that helps make sure college is accessible, affordable, and within reach of any student who wants to attend, and that students leave college ready for the workforce.” Although those objectives may be unassailable, they raise questions about who would be empowered–the individual or the government. For example, would government judge all colleges according to workforce-preparation outcomes, without regard to the differences between, say, a liberal arts college and a technical training institute?

Teacher Education Reform Considered

One aspect of Higher Education Act reauthorization that relates to K-12 reform is federal policy on teacher education. In 2003, the House of Representatives passed, with overwhelmingly bipartisan support, a measure that would have required universities, along with their 1,200 schools of education and state departments of education, to demonstrate they are producing teachers who know their subjects. The bill languished in the Senate; therefore, the 109th Congress must start fresh.

The bill’s revival might provide a starting point for reauthorization in 2005. The version passed by the House provided a package of incentives for programs that permit bright persons who have never attended a school of education to become K-12 teachers. In addition to alternative certification of teachers, it would fund “charter colleges of education” to foster innovation in teacher preparation. The charter colleges would be free to disdain the conventional counting of education credits in favor of “value-added” assessments showing their graduates actually increase student achievement.

Also up for reauthorization is Head Start, an early-childhood program that is one of the most enduring vestiges of the Great Society effort of the mid-1960s. The congressional stalemate in the 108th Congress over the direction of this program indicated bipartisan consensus will be much harder to achieve for Head Start than for reforming teacher education.

In 2003, the House passed, on a party-line vote of 217-216, a “School Readiness” bill that would have gone some distance toward heeding President George W. Bush’s call for a strengthened academic focus and accountability for Head Start, including greater authority for governors in deciding how the program operates in the states. However, many Democrats take the position that such steps would lead to the destruction of Head Start as a comprehensive care package for the children of poverty, one that includes health and mental health screenings, nutritional evaluations, dental and vision services, and parental activism.

Look for the debate over divergent Head Start philosophies to remain heated in 2005.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia.