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Ideological opponents Kline and Duncan now the nation’s most powerful figures on education policy

Rep. John Kline, left, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are expected to spend the next two years retooling the nation’s tattered school reform roadmap. During that process, they will be strangely dependent on one another.

Rep. John Kline
Rep. John Kline

When Rep. John Kline and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan together step through the bright blue doors at Crystal Lake Elementary School this afternoon in Lakeville, in the Republican lawmaker’s 2nd Congressional District, the moment will be freighted with symbolism.

With Kline now chair of the recently renamed House Education and Workforce Committee, he and Duncan are the two most powerful figures in education policy in the country.

And they are ideological opponents who are expected to spend the next two years retooling the nation’s tattered school reform roadmap.

During that process, they will be strangely dependent on one another. If Kline doesn’t like Duncan’s policies, he has the House votes to block them legislatively. If Duncan’s boss and pickup basketball buddy, President Obama, doesn’t like Kline’s legislation, he can exercise his veto.

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They could, in short, create only gridlock. So it’s a good thing the two men not only enjoy each other on a personal level but share some beliefs about education.

“It’s almost impossible not to like Arne Duncan,” Kline said in an interview Thursday. “He is very engaging. He is very accessible to me and vice versa. We have a good working relationship.”

When Kline learned that Duncan would address the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce today, he called the secretary and asked if they could get together. Word in local political circles is that they have dinner plans, but even if they simply tour Crystal Lake, located less than a mile from Kline’s house, the visit could sound a rare note of bipartisanship as the 112th Congress opens.

(Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius will visit the school, too.)

There is broad agreement on both sides of the political aisle that the Bush Administration’s signature education policy, the 9-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, is a failure. And there’s consensus that a major overhaul is in order.

Both Kline and Duncan want to scrap NCLB’s standardized tests, which are designed to determine whether schools are making continuous progress toward closing the achievement gap but don’t provide educators with useful information about their pupils’ progress or gaps in their learning.

Sec. Arne Duncan
REUTERS/Larry Downing
Sec. Arne Duncan

Both men also favor the proliferation of charter schools, as well as linking student performance and teacher compensation. Both want to reform teacher tenure — something Kline has cheerfully admitted a Republican can’t do.

Indeed, many liberal education policymakers were skeptical when Obama tapped former Chicago schools chief Duncan to lead the Education Department, noting that a lot of his ideas would resonate better with Republicans than Democrats. 

The issues where they diverge, however, are far from minor details. Kline is vehement in his belief that NCLB’s requirements robbed school districts of local control, which he vows to restore.

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Similarly, he opposes the adoption of the Common Core Standards, an initiative begun by a majority of the states that Duncan incorporated into last year’s Race to the Top competition for education stimulus funding. Kline views the initiative, which outlines skills students should be expected to master in each grade, as a step toward a nationalized curriculum.

Nor is the new committee chair inclined to renew RTTT, and has called Congress “irresponsible” for handing Duncan billions of dollars to dole out to states “with no strings attached.”

This puts Duncan, who thinks the way to encourage tough reforms is to replace NCLB’s stick with a financial carrot, in a spot. Thirty-nine states got no RTTT money at all, and school districts throughout the country are hurtling toward a “funding cliff” they will tumble over when federal stimulus spending dries up.

Kline would, however, double special-ed funding to $28 billion to finally fulfill the federal government’s legal commitment to pay for 40 percent of the programming it has required states to provide since 1975.

The renewal of NCLB, formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Law, is one of the largest items likely to be on Obama’s agenda when he gives his State of the Union speech next week. But it’s not the only education issue Duncan and Kline are slated to confront.

In recent months, the U.S. Department of Education has worked hard to craft a series of rules designed to curb abuses by for-profit colleges and universities. The goal: To stanch the flow of federal student aid to programs where students’ job prospects are dim and where their projected debt-to-income ratio makes it likely they will default on their student loans. 

One set of guidelines, known as the Program Integrity rules, has already been finalized; another, to address Gainful Employment, is being fine-tuned after the department received tens of thousands of critical comments.

Saying that the rules unfairly target private-sector schools while letting their public and nonprofit counterparts skate, Kline has told Duncan he wants the rules scrapped or significantly overhauled. If the secretary demurs, he’ll address the issue in the House.

“I would like them to stop the process and look, through rulemaking, at another approach,” he said. “If the department persists in pursuing the current approach, we have legislative remedies we can pursue.”

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Remedies Obama might turn back with a veto.

Kline and Duncan already have a track record. Before Kline’s election as Education Committee chair, both participated in the so-called Big 8 meetings with ranking members of the committees and subcommittees responsible for K-12 policy. The effort is credited with securing several bipartisan agreements.

And the two met several times over the summer along with the Education Committee’s outgoing Democratic chair to begin talking about how NCLB’s retooling might be accomplished.

Will the good will be enough to keep the unlikely political bedfellows from retreating back to their party lines? Just in case, perhaps this afternoon they ought to ask Crystal Lake’s pupils to school them on taking turns, resolving arguments and working and playing nicely together.