Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


The Boehner and Duncan retirements might be just the excuse Congress needed to do nothing about education policy

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s retirement shakes up an already contentious — and difficult — legislative effort to replace No Child Left Behind.

WASHINGTON — Everyone knew that getting an overhaul of the No Child Left Behind education law signed would be hard: These days, the idea of the House and Senate agreeing on a compromise bill that would get the president’s approval — and on a lightning-rod topic like K-12 education — seems doomed to fail.

But leaders of the effort to retool the 2002 law, like 2nd District Rep. John Kline, who is chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, have remained optimistic in the face of long odds. In the past two weeks, however, developments in Washington have emerged to make their task even harder, or at the very least, more volatile: the resignations of House Speaker John Boehner and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

To briefly recap: Back in July, the House and Senate passed respective versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Law, also known as No Child Left Behind. The Senate bill — which passed by a relatively wide margin — is thought to be closer to what the president might support than the House bill, which narrowly advanced on a party-line vote.

Kline was named chair of the bicameral, bipartisan committee that will meet to negotiate differences between the bills. While members of the conference have not been announced, the staffs of Kline and other key lawmakers have reportedly been at work since summer on a compromise.

This is the closest Congress has come to overhauling K-12 education policy since No Child Left Behind was passed in 2002. (It technically expired in 2007.) Despite that, education experts and policy-watchers agree that the chances of success are now dwindling — and fast — because of Boehner’s retirement and a number of other factors.

Testing a new speaker

In Boehner — the last member of Congress remaining to have helped write the original NCLB — Kline undoubtedly loses a formidable ally. But the issue is less that Boehner would have moved the education bill and more that his successor may avoid it like the plague, according to Arnold Shober, an education policy expert at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.

The man likely to be the next speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, is broadly well-liked but not a darling of the Tea Party right, which has cast him as Boehner 2.0. If he is elected, McCarthy will be tested from the get-go by the House Freedom Caucus, a group of about 40 conservative representatives who led the charge for Boehner’s ouster.

The education package, Shober says, “is a huge bill … it has lots of marks of the federal government that these conservatives aren’t very happy with.” It may be an ideal opportunity for conservatives to push McCarthy’s limits by attaching conservative policy favorites, like an expansion of school-choice vouchers, and daring him to blink.

In any case, Shober says, House conservatives are too emboldened by Boehner’s departure to agree to anything resembling a moderate compromise with the Senate and the White House. And in the unlikely scenario that McCarthy is upset and someone like Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz becomes Speaker, well, forget it.

On the other hand, if the bill advances out of a conference, it will present an important opportunity for McCarthy, or whoever the next speaker may be, to demonstrate that he — and the GOP — can lead, according to Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education think tank in Washington. McCarthy, he says, would pick up the gavel with a record of knowing how to get bills through the GOP conference.

Petrilli says McCarthy was active in getting the House bill passed in July. “The base doesn’t want to compromise, but there’s a strong argument that going into the election, [McCarthy] can demonstrate that Republicans can get stuff done,” he says.

If McCarthy has to rely on Democratic votes to do that — a near certainty with this piece of legislation — it could doom him, Shober says. “One of the gripes about Boehner was that he was willing to borrow Democratic votes to pass legislation … if they have a new speaker that does the same, it won’t make conservatives any happier, and you might see a new speaker election.”

Is there any chance Boehner might take up education — and help his old pal Kline — as part of his so called “barn-cleaning” before he leaves Congress at the end of October? Unlikely, Shober says: “Boehner hasn’t attached much of his own speakership to the legacy of that bill. … I think it’s important to him, but I’m not sure it’s on the top of his list for this month.”

Duncan’s departure a wildcard

In the middle of all this, the White House is losing its top education policymaker: President Barack Obama’s longtime education secretary, Arne Duncan, announced his resignation last Friday. Observers agree that his departure won’t affect congressional dynamics as much as Boehner’s, but it could make things more interesting.

In his nearly seven years on the job, Duncan became something of a bogeyman for elements on both the right and the left: The former disliked his emphasis on the federal government’s role in education policy, while the latter felt betrayed by his enthusiastic support of charter schools. He also earned both praise and criticism for his decisions to waive states from certain provisions of No Child Left Behind, slowly dismantling the law while Congress continued to dither on a response.

Shober says there are two ways Duncan’s retirement could shake things up: For one, he was so disliked by some conservatives that his departure could free up some space for them to get behind certain policy points, like strong testing requirements, that were sullied in some corners simply by being associated with the secretary.

Kline and other GOP leaders could also use Duncan’s retirement to rally conservative support. According to Shober, the administration’s piecemeal dismantling of No Child Left Behind was a source of anger and disappointment on the right. “Kline could say, ‘look, Duncan the waiver king is gone, and now we can re-authorize this bill to say it’s not waiver-able. We can guarantee that Duncan’s successor can’t shoot holes in our bill.’”

John B. King, deputy education secretary, was named as acting secretary by the president — he’ll take over after Duncan departs the office at the end of the year. The jury is out on how King might differ from Duncan: The two share a support for charter schools, but as New York state’s top education official, King pushed a high-stakes testing regimen that Obama is increasingly looking to pare down.

Too many obstacles?

At this point, of course, these scenarios are hypothetical; the House and Senate conference members haven’t even been named. After that happens, they will then have to meet and agree on a compromise to send to each chamber, before we can assess a showdown between conservatives and a new speaker. (Though it’s likely the staffs of key players will have already done much of the work by then.) Many observers agree that the barriers to a compromise arriving at Obama’s desk — let alone him signing one — are just too great.

A compromise bill would likely have elements that would make a yes vote a difficult ask even for less conservative House Republicans. The White House has repeatedly said that it wants any bill to maintain accountability provisions that codify focuses on low-income and minority students and schools. According to Kevin Welner, director of the nonpartisan National Education Policy Center, “the House was never going to agree to anything that would be acceptable to the Senate, let alone to the president.”

Election-year dynamics will play a major role, too — and even top lawmakers like Kline have acknowledged that the closer Congress gets to 2016, the less likely it is to pass the bill. Presidential politics has a sweeping effect that causes members of Congress to dig in their heels on ideology, and backing a compromise with Obama could give ammunition to the opponents of Republicans facing primary challenges.

“It’s a big bill and I’d be surprised if they took it up next year if they don’t take it up in the next couple of weeks,” Shober says.

Welner says that with Boehner’s departure, “the chances of passage probably went from below 10 percent to further below 10 percent.” Petrilli says it’s always safe to bet against Congress getting something done, but thinks there’s a 25 percent chance it can pass ESEA.

Kline and allies remain optimistic

Kline and his Senate counterpart, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, have remained publicly determined to push a law through Congress. Kline said in September he is confident they will send a bipartisan bill to Obama’s desk by the end of the year. And while Kline himself is retiring, it will be at the end of 2016 — possibly giving him an advantage, Shober says. “He has [more] flexibility in this bill than if he were running for re-election … he may be able to patch something together.”

But as Boehner’s speakership illustrated time and again, Congress has tended to govern by crisis politics, only taking up important issues if an ominous deadline or cliff loomed. The same set of structural obstacles that dogged Boehner will face the next Speaker. With education policy there’s no deadline or cliff on the horizon — or ever. “It’s eight years overdue,” Shober says. “No one’s breathing down their neck.”

It’s about time for the American public to start doing just that, says Mary Cathryn Ricker, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers. If Congress fails to pass the law, “it looks like education is such a low priority that there are elected officials willing to play politics on this and not make any progress at all,” Ricker says.

“We need to say, ‘enough!’ We expect Congress to model for us that you know how to get things done.”

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 10/06/2015 - 11:23 am.

    National education policy

    If there is nothing good you can do, you should do nothing. Since when did Congress accomplish anything that advanced in the interests of the country in the area of education? Don’t our students’
    ‘performance continue to lag significantly behind that of other nations? Don’t we bad mouth teachers who basically are our only hope of improving things? If a student is promising educationally, but poor, are they likely to complete college and get an advanced degree, or it those career paths still largely reserved for the children of affluence? Schools are supposed to be the path to social mobility, but the Republican controlled Congress would rather cut spending and taxes than get better educational outcomes. I think it is probably better to not hobble students with more backward thinking and even more underfunded programs that appeal to Republicans, whose children are advantaged by the disadvantages faces by minorities and the poor.

  2. Submitted by Joe Smith on 10/06/2015 - 12:50 pm.

    How about we eliminate the Federal control of education and bring the money and power back to the states. We have lost ground globally since the Federal Government got involved as far as our students ranking in basic learning skills. We became obsessed as WHAT the kids were reading not how to enjoy reading, had to change basic math because it was too hard to learn multiplication/subtraction tables- got news for you 3×3 will always be 9, learn it, took time out from learning math, reading and science to teach social issues (leave that to the parents) eliminated trade skill classes and de-emphasized the trades as an option to kids, basically turned to an agenda instead of teaching our kids skills they will need to succeed in a real work environment.
    What we are doing now and the past couple decades have not worked, how about a change?

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 10/06/2015 - 03:53 pm.

      Source Please

      Here are 2 good ones.

      The reason schools look worse now was because many States weren’t measuring, and they sure were not measuring which children were just passed to move them along in the system. Only when States were forced to measure and report against a somewhat common standard did we realize exactly how bad of a job some of those “local folk” were doing.

      • Submitted by Joe Smith on 10/06/2015 - 04:40 pm.

        If that is the case then why did the USA go from one of the leaders in basic skills 40 yrs ago to anywhere from 25-35 world wide depending on the study? I’m sure those “local folk” were up to their low requirement, moving students along stunts back then. BTW the moving students along is an epidemic in today’s Federal run system.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 10/06/2015 - 06:16 pm.


          “one of the leaders in basic skills 40 yrs ago” Please provide a source, and did you read the WP source I provided. They discuss your nostalgic belief in great detail and why it is incorrect.

          When kids are “moved along” now we see it clearly in the test data. That is why the Teacher’s Unions want to stop the testing and go back to those good old days where people didn’t know how many kids were being left behind and tax payers / parents weren’t demanding accountability /results.

          Usually I am a fan of local control, especially when it comes to taxing and spending. However when it comes to curriculum, teaching methods, performance stds, etc I am pretty sure that the “local folk” are not as competent as the “best of the best” in America. We are in a modern globally competitive world, I don’t think the local school board and those few nosy pushy far Left/ far Right Parents are up to the challenge.

          By the way, though I am up for national standards and expectations. I believe a good Teacher who can personalize the methods and concepts based on each child’s personality and learning style can make a huge difference in the classroom. The question is are they okay with just helping kid’s to truly learn or do they feel a need to control what content they teach to feel fulfilled?

  3. Submitted by Clete Erickson on 10/07/2015 - 04:00 pm.


    I just think education works better when it is controlled locally. Parents can talk to their School Board members as well as their local representatives (who are all elected officials) and make sure they are getting what they want/expect.

    The Feds can play a roll and set some standards but if we expect the Federal Govt to save education it will be a long wait. In MN we value education and spend tons of money on it and we get good results, if some southern states do not place as high a value on their children’s education that only benefits Minnesota. The modern economy as it adjusts to modern manufacturing realities will find a highly educated workforce like MN has a better place to grow their companies.

    This might been seen as short sighted when taken in context of a great America but I feel the Federal Govt has not done a good job in as it relates to EDU and I just don’t see them doing anything better than it does now. My thoughts only. Thank you.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 10/07/2015 - 11:40 pm.


      “Parents can talk to their School Board members as well as their local representatives (who are all elected officials) and make sure they are getting what they want/expect.”

      Usually when I hear of this happening, it is some Parent complaining about the content of a textbook based on their personal beliefs. Or some Parent who is against the school allowing the children to wear costumes on Halloween. Or how the discipline policy is unfair. Or how some Teacher is performing terribly.

      What are you thinking will be lost with National standards?
      The local school boards, principals, teachers, etc are still going to be here to try and satisfy parents while ensuring the kids learn based on global standards.

      And though I am happy that MN kids are smarter than MS, I am more concerned that MN and MS kids are smarter and more creative than Chinese and India kids.

      By the way we are already being rated, and MN does okay to good. Except for that we have one of the largest academic achievement gaps in the country.

Leave a Reply