Incoming House education chair: Vow to abolish Education Department just a ‘talking point’

Liz Goodwin
The Upshot

Even as he rued an Election Day "shellacking," President Obama seemed hopeful in his post-midterms press conference yesterday that Democrats and Republicans may find common ground on education legislation, if not much else. The Washington Post's Nick Anderson examined that wish in a story today, focusing on the handful of newly elected Republican candidates who ran on a pledge to abolish the Department of Education -- a position that doesn't exactly bode well for interparty cooperation on the issue.

Soon-to-be Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky, Rob Portman of Ohio, and Mike Lee of Utah have supported initiatives in the past to abolish the DOE or stated their support for the department's abolition. At least 15 new House members have as well.

But GOP Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the soon-to-be-ranking member of the House's education and labor committee, dismissed talk that the new Congress will make it a priority to dismantle the Education Department.

"In some ways, that's sort of a talking point," Kline told Anderson. "There will be those who campaigned on that language. I'm not sure they always know what it means."

Even so, Republican leadership will be under great pressure from new and old members of the 112th Congress to cut federal spending, and education spending will almost certainly fall under that mandate. (You can read more about how education reformers are already anticipating deep federal spending cuts here.) In addition, Obama's education team passed its signature initiative, the Race to the Top program, through the stimulus package. That means they are unaccustomed to negotiating and convincing lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to sign on to a major education bill.

"This administration has no clue whatsoever about how to deal with Republicans," Vic Klatt, a GOP education aide and lobbyist, told Time education columnist Andrew Rotherham. "The education folks, in particular, have trouble."

Rotherham adds that the Obama administration may find an ally in future Speaker of the House John Boehner, who was one of four lawmakers who crafted President Bush's signature No Child Left Behind Act, which reformed the way the federal government doles out money to schools. Boehner "became attached to the policy and its potential positive impact on low-income students," Rotherham writes.

This year, the Obama administration hopes to rename the Bush-era program and make some small reforms to it.

Education reporter Dana Goldstein writes that Boehner and Obama agree in some areas concerning charter schools and linking teacher pay to performance ratings. But Obama stops shy of one of Boehner's pet education reforms: a voucher system permitting low-income students to attend private schools. Boehner has also opposed a national curriculum and standardized test system.

Cooperation, then, may coalesce around "issues of teacher accountability and school choice, with President Obama potentially using private school vouchers as a bargaining chip in order to earn some Republican buy-in on tougher curriculum standards or spending on public charter schools," Goldstein writes.

(Photo of Obama and Boehner: AP)