Hill Leadership Changes May Strengthen Education Reform Efforts

Published April 1, 2006

When the chairmanship of a major congressional committee changes hands, policy wonks’ antennae are activated immediately. As any civics student knows (or should know), many of the most significant decisions of any legislative body come in committee. And a forceful chairman can have a big effect on the outcomes.

Thus it was that the House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and the Workforce was the center of attention this spring, following transfer of the chairmanship from John Boehner (R-OH) to Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-CA).

Boehner, who played a key role in shaping and enacting the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law after becoming Education Committee chair in January 2001, won an upset victory February 2 in the three-way race to become House Majority Leader, replacing Tom DeLay (R-TX). House Republicans then tapped McKeon to take over for Boehner as chairman of the Education Committee.

Choice Advocate?

McKeon has been a member of the Education Committee since 1993 and has chaired its Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness since 1995, but he has not been known for the strong advocacy of vouchers and other forms of school choice that Boehner brought to the table. McKeon’s signature issues have been workforce preparation and containment of sharp tuition increases in higher education.

Upon assuming the Education Committee reins, McKeon asserted his determination to address what he called the “new realities” of the global economy.

“The new realities that I discussed in my chairmanship bid are an economy that is worldwide, high-tech, and highly competitive,” McKeon said in a February 16 statement. “The edge that America brings to the table is innovation and adaptability. If we lose that, then we will lose not only our standard of living, but our position of global leadership.”

Bush Supporter

That declaration strongly suggests McKeon will be a staunch supporter of President George W. Bush’s Competitiveness Initiative, part of which entails beefing up math and science instruction in order to prepare American youth to be successful workers in a global economy. However, some Capitol Hill observers believe McKeon could also take up the cause of school choice.

“Chairman McKeon has been a loyal supporter of school choice,” said Dan Lips, education policy analyst for The Heritage Foundation. “But he’s never had the opportunity to be a leader on the issue. In his new role, he now has the opportunity. Case in point is the president’s new $100 million Opportunity Scholarship proposal. Chairman McKeon can prove his true support for school choice by taking an active role in backing the new initiative.”

National Policy

Another consideration is that education is not likely to slip off Boehner’s radar now that he has become majority leader.

Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said that boded well for the creation of a national education policy.

“For the first time in a long time, the country has a House Majority Leader who is an education policy wonk,” Sabato said. “The evidence is substantial that Boehner really cares about the field of education, and he can be reasonably expected to focus some attention on the subject.

“In his new role, Boehner has the power to make things happen, far more even than as a committee chairman. At the same time, he has to be responsive to the continuing grumbling from the GOP House caucus about various provisions of No Child Left Behind. I’d be surprised if he didn’t use his expertise and reflect his caucus in attempting further alterations of the law, plus some new initiatives to encourage school choice.”

Strong Support

Such initiatives “might or might not ever get by the Senate,” Sabato noted. However, he pointed out, “The Republican House has got a tough election in November.

“At the very least, Boehner has to help generate a strong turnout if the GOP base is to fend off a real takeover bid by the Democrats. These education issues matter to the conservative base. Maybe they can assist in counterbalancing the base-depressing effects of overspending and corruption.”

Should the Republicans lose control of the House in November, the likely new chairman of the Education Committee would be George Miller (D-CA), currently the ranking minority-party member. Miller supported NCLB but contends the Republican administration has failed to fund it fully.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is an author and journalist who writes frequently about education.