WILLIAMS: Boehner must not abandon education reform

When it comes to Congress, the American people speak with one voice — stop the bickering and get something done on the big issues. The colossus getting the least attention at the moment is education reform. In a January Gallup poll, education outranked healthcare and terrorism among extremely important issues for Congress to deal with.

Nine years ago, an Ohio congressman by the name of John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerRestoring fiscal sanity requires bipartisan courage GOP congressman slams primary rival for Ryan donations Speculation swirls about Kevin McCarthy’s future MORE was a leading voice on improving schools and one of the authors of No Child Left Behind. When the monumental bill expired in 2007, it was under attack by teachers’ unions and critics of standardized tests. Shamefully, the Democratic majority in Congress at that time let the petty carping stall the next phase of school reform.

Today, the most powerful man on Capitol Hill, newly crowned Republican Speaker BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerRestoring fiscal sanity requires bipartisan courage GOP congressman slams primary rival for Ryan donations Speculation swirls about Kevin McCarthy’s future MORE, has a decision to make. Does he return to 2002 form as a champion for better schools, or does he let Republicans follow the Democrats’ lousy example?

The big problem for Speaker Boehner and the House Republican leadership is their pledge to slash non-defense discretionary spending. Education is a likely target. Indeed, many of the freshmen Republicans, who were elected with backing from the Tea Party, have made plain that they want to see the Department of Education, with its $63.7 billion budget, completely defunded.

The conservative criticism of No Child Left Behind — unfunded mandates, federal overreach and excessive burden on the states — recalls much of what was heard on the campaign trail last year. Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, was backed by the Tea Party organization in Minnesota. But he says he disagrees with the Tea Party position and is at work on a reauthorization bill. The question is whether Speaker Boehner and the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party are going to work with Kline or close the door on legislation allowing the federal government to fix troubled schools.

The Tea Party is keeping up the pressure on Kline and Boehner. “Most of us believe that education should be dealt with at the state or preferably at the local level,” Tea Party Patriots Co-Founder Mark Meckler said. He thinks the Tea Parties nationwide are committed to blocking any reauthorization. “I think when people have stepped up and declared themselves as a Tea Party candidate, they’re going to be held to a higher standard. If they don’t step up and act according to these values, the local folks will step up and hold them accountable.”

Meanwhile, the only Democrat focused on education reform is at the other end of Capitol Hill — President Obama. When he presented his vision for reform last March and in his recent State of the Union speech, he linked teacher pay to test scores and ending tenure that protects ineffective teachers. His Race to the Top program, funded by the stimulus bill, provided competitive grants to states with schools that are open to reforms, including charter schools. The unions don’t like paying teachers based on results and charter schools are another union bugaboo.

In a State of the Union address heavy on education reform, President Obama said Race to the Top is “the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation.” He must have missed No Child Left Behind, but that can be excused as a wily political ploy. Even as they are rebranding the effort, the Obama administration is trying to bolster the same types of advancements the Bush administration sought with No Child Left Behind. The big difference between the Bush plan and Obama’s newly named effort has been to delegate more decisions about how to improve schools to the state and reward the best decisions with federal dollars.

All the while, congressional Democrats continue to do nothing about education reform. Even the Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses, whose constituents gained the most from No Child Left Behind, remain on the sidelines. The teacher unions have them silenced. So the Democrats are content to let Kline, Boehner and the Tea Parties dither as they discuss how education reform fits into the Republican focus on deficit reduction.

At the moment, with no timeline for a bill, the most likely outcome is piecemeal legislation addressing small reform proposals. According to an Education and the Workforce Committee spokesman, the likely line-up will include discussion about national testing standards, vouchers — a program Boehner is supporting for reauthorization in D.C. schools — and setting benchmarks for failing schools.

At this point the odds are against Congress taking the risk on even those little bits of reform.
But that can change fast if Speaker Boehner returns to 2002 form and uses his gavel to get the Congressional classroom to pay attention to writing on the blackboard: America needs education reform.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.