House GOP point man on education to Obama: Don’t rush me on 'No Child'

Rep. John Kline (Minn.), the House Republicans’ point man on education, has a blunt response to President Obama’s aggressive push for Congress to rewrite federal education law by August: Don’t rush me.

The new chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee sees election-year politics behind Obama’s hurry to overhaul the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind law, which Congress approved nearly a decade ago.

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“I’m very much aware that 2012 is a presidential election year and presidential politics will start to dominate what goes on around here,” Kline told The Hill in an interview Tuesday in his Capitol Hill office. “So there is a little bit of urgency to move, but I’m not going to rush this and do it wrong.”

Kline also said the House would not approve a single comprehensive education bill and would instead break up the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind into separate pieces of legislation. The move is a reflection of orders from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to scrap the thousand-page bills that Republicans decried under the Democratic majority.

“We’re just not going to do it,” Kline said of passing a comprehensive bill. He added that lawmakers were still “stinging” from the mammoth pieces of legislation that Democrats passed in the last two years
The chairman’s comments come as the Obama administration mounts a coordinated campaign to spur Congress into action on the issue. The law was due for reauthorization four years ago, and school districts nationwide are barreling toward a 2014 deadline for meeting proficiency benchmarks, with crippling sanctions in place, up to and including school closures, if they don’t. The Department of Education warned last week that if the law isn’t changed, more than 80 percent of the country’s public schools will be “failing” by next year under standards set by current law.

During a speech Monday in Virginia, Obama called on Congress to send him an education reform bill he can sign “before the next school year begins.”

In the House, the pressure falls to Kline, whom Boehner tapped in 2009 to take over as the top Republican on the Education and Workforce (then Education and Labor) panel. At 63 and in his fifth term, the retired Marine colonel is a rookie chairman leading a committee flush with new conservative members, including several freshmen who campaigned against the very existence of the Department of Education.

Unlike healthcare and other highly polarized issues Obama has tackled, the seeds of bipartisanship on education have already been planted. The president has won praise from the GOP for some of his reform efforts, including the Race to the Top program, and his Education secretary, Arne Duncan, has forged solid relationships with top Republicans on Capitol Hill.

“We all agree that we need to fix No Child Left Behind,” Kline said. “It’s our common recognition that that status quo is unacceptable, which is pushing us to work in as bipartisan a way as we can to replace that law.”

A former chairman of the Education panel who recommended Kline for the post, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), said the urgency was real. “Now we’re up against crunch time, and ’14 is going to come right quick. And everybody’s going to be in panic mode,” he said. “So they better get it done now. Otherwise there’s going to be a real major catastrophe.”

Kline praised the administration’s outreach to Republicans on education, particularly in contrast to its approach to healthcare reform in 2009 and 2010, which the GOP roundly criticized. A “Gang of Eight” Republican and Democratic committee leaders has been meeting regularly on education issues for months, most recently with Obama at the White House last week.

Like other Republicans, Kline singled out Duncan, whom he called “a wonderfully nice man.”

“He’s impossible not to like,” the chairman said. Duncan, he said, began calling him more than a year ago, when House Republicans were in the minority, to discuss No Child Left Behind. In those early conversations, Kline detected a hint of contrition from the presidential confidant at the conclusion of the costly healthcare debate. “He told me that he wanted to do this differently than other legislation,” Kline said. “I don’t think he specifically mentioned healthcare, but that’s the way I heard it.”

In a statement to The Hill, Duncan called Kline “a tireless champion for education reform.”

“He's a leader I have tremendous respect for, and his vision and commitment to children will be critical as we work to fix No Child Left Behind this year,” he said.

Warm words aside, Republicans and Democrats will have to bridge a considerable philosophical gap over how the parties view the federal role in education. There is near-uniform agreement that the Republican Party of 2011 is not the same as the one that approved the expansive education law in 2001, when Bush made it the centerpiece, along with tax cuts, of his domestic policy agenda.

Boehner then held Kline’s post at the helm of the Education and Workforce Committee, where he helped shepherd Bush’s proposal to passage. But education advocates say that even then, it was clear No Child Left Behind was Bush’s baby, not Boehner’s.

“Boehner, in effect, took Bush’s speech [on education] and wrote it into the law that became No Child Left Behind,” said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy. In the years since, Jennings said, Boehner “more or less disowned No Child Left Behind.”

Kline was not in Congress in 2001, but he said that knowing what he knows now, he would have opposed it. “In my mind, they put too large an intrusion of the federal government into K-12 education,” he said. “Speaker Boehner and virtually everyone else has recognized that there’s some very large mistakes in No Child Left Behind.”

A Boehner spokesman, Michael Steel, said the Speaker “is confident Chairman Kline will be a powerful advocate for effective education reforms that increase flexibility, choice and parental involvement.”

On the timing of the overhaul, Kline said he acknowledged to the president that the Senate was moving ahead of the House thus far. The chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), has said he wants to introduce legislation by Easter.

“They’re going to move at their pace, and they’re going to have to understand, and I think they do, that we’re going to move at our pace,” Kline said.

The chairman downplayed the policy differences with the 11 new Republicans on the committee, but he said that acclimating them to the issues would take time. “Half of my committee is made up of new members of Congress, so there’s a certain amount of education, and I use that word advisedly, that needs to go on,” Kline said.

Colleagues say Kline’s military background is visible in his leadership style, but that he works to build consensus.

“He’s a very firm guy, but he’s been a very pleasant person to work with,” said Rep. George Miller (Calif.), the committee’s top Democrat and former chairman. “He’s firm, and he’s very good at telling you what he thinks he can do, and what he thinks he can’t do. … He’s pretty straightforward. I appreciate that.”