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

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by John Norman on 01/21/2011 - 09:37 am.

    They both need to read Diane Ravitch’s book The Death and Life of the Great American School System to get some reality around (1) charter schools; and (2) tenure.

  2. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 01/21/2011 - 11:10 am.

    Amen, Mr. Norman. Diane Ravitch should be required reading. (I haven’t read her book, but have read articles by and about her.)

    Of the two Washington fellows, at this time I’d have to support Kline over Duncan as the person who would cause less harm.

  3. Submitted by Eric T on 01/21/2011 - 01:50 pm.

    Those that commented about the Diane Ravitch book, maybe you can give more details?

    Does it offer any insights on how local vs. national influence on public education? Or Charter schools vs. public schools?

    Do you think all this talk about school and what we teach and how we teach matter that much? Does teaching evolution or not teaching evolution have that strong a influence of the future success of a student?

    I don’t know. I’m not an expert. I think the student and parent’s attitudes toward school and education have way more effect on success. With all the statistics about the decline of the American public education system, how have our attitudes toward education change? Are students spending less time studying and doing homework? Can you blame any specific public education policy on students spending less time on homework?

    I understand that the challenges of home life could have huge effects on student performance, but is that just trying to use one extreme to try to explain a greater trend?

  4. Submitted by DeeAnn Christensen on 01/21/2011 - 02:10 pm.

    Representative Kline might like to visit the homeless shelters where for-profit colleges shamelessly recruit students with carrots such as a promise of $80,000 for a four-year financial aid award. I run a Tech Center where residents get up to four recruiting calls a day from colleges such as University of Phoenix, Argosy, etc. These colleges perceive the homeless as a fertile field to plow as they may default on their loan leaving the homeless with a lifetime of debt which taxpayers may eventually have to pay while colleges reap the federal dollars.


  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/21/2011 - 02:18 pm.

    I wouldn’t overestimate the impact national politicians have on education and education policy. When you get down to how decisions are actually made, they are very minor players.

  6. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 01/21/2011 - 03:15 pm.

    Well – I’ve read Ravitch’s book. The subtitle is “How testing and choice are undermining education,” so you get the sense of what she thinks of the education deformers. She points up many unpleasant facts about charter schools, including the Credo study showing that charter students are twice as likely to do worse, academically, than students at regular public schools. She laments the loss of local control when schools are changed to charters, where they are subject to corporate, not democratic control.

  7. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 01/21/2011 - 03:25 pm.


    Inquiring minds want to know. I’d love to hear about these recruiters. Would you be willing to supply contact information for yourself? Like everyone else at MinnPost, my e-mail is first initial followed by last name at minnpost.com.

    The Ravitch book is on my shelf. I hear it’s excellent.

    Glad you’re reading!

  8. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 01/22/2011 - 07:58 am.

    Eric (#3)

    You might check out the interview Ms. Ravitch gave to Democracy Now (www.democracynow.org) a few months ago.

    On the same morning, the program also described an effort by some citizens of Detroit (and I believe some non-citizen “reformists”) to get the mayor of that city to take over the school system, fire all staff and close all schools, and then replace them all with private charters to be managed by as-yet-unknowable “foundations” with as-yet-unknowable agendae.

    I watched that, then read a Salon article about Ms. Ravitch and than googled “Arne Duncan’s results in Chicago.” One of the articles that came up was about a study commissioned by Chicago businesspeople. The study found that the “really good” results achieved by his reform of Chicago’s public schools were not as good as claimed. Including one or more schools that were allowed to increase their students’ test scores by lowering their standards.

    Ms. Ravitch considers the Duncan et al. “reforms” an attack upon public schools, teachers and unions.

    Minnesota is surely not the only state to have proven that what works are quality early childhood education, smaller classes, and adequate funding and staffing. Many of our charter schools do a great job, but not a better job than good public schools.

  9. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/22/2011 - 08:48 am.

    I say this in an objective rather than partisan sense, but one of the trends I have observed over the last couple of decades is the decline of the federal government. As any watcher of the Sunday news shows could tell you the quality of legislators we are managing to send to Washington is pretty poor, and the news coverage is worse. Now we have entered an era where getting anything done at all requires a super majority in one of houses of Congress. The effect of this is that little gets done, and what is done is hopelessly distorted by the political compromises necessary to achieve it.

    For better and maybe for worse, we are entering an era where the states are becoming the primary focus of innovative and creative thinking, and where quite frankly the quality of the legislatures is much higher than found on the national level. I am wondering whether it’s time to give up on the federal government, basically turning those campaigns and elections to corporate interests whose influence is already strong and particularly in light of the Citizens United case, will only increase.

  10. Submitted by Roger Brooks on 01/22/2011 - 09:58 pm.

    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.

    “two most powerful figures in education policy in the country”

    Please, let’s get our voice not get too worked up!

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