During 25 years in the Marine Corps, including flying helicopters in Vietnam, Rep. John Kline, a Minnesota Republican, developed the skill of maintaining small-unit cohesion. He will need this skill in his new job.
Half the Republican members of the committee he now chairs are in their first term, and he laughingly guesses that in 2010 "about half of them campaigned on abolishing the Education Department."
Ronald Reagan was an abolitionist, and Kline has proposed legislation to replace Ulysses Grant's visage with Reagan's on the $50 bill.
Kline, now in his fifth term, chairs the Education and the Workforce Committee that will have jurisdiction over rethinking No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which soon will be 10 years old and may not recognizably survive to see its 12th birthday.
As a Marine, one of Kline's assignments was to carry the "football" — the package containing the nuclear launch codes — for presidents Carter and Reagan. Education policy involves no intimations of Armageddon, but will force conservatives to confront a contradiction between their correct theory and a stubborn fact.
Their theory is that education in grades K through 12, which gets most of the Education Department's attention, is a quintessentially state and local responsibility, so the department is inimical to local control of education.
Created by a Democratic-controlled Congress in 1979, the department was promised by candidate Jimmy Carter, who in 1976 became the first presidential candidate ever endorsed by the National Education Association, the largest teachers union.
Unfortunately, the stubborn fact is that local control means control by the teachers unions. Most school boards are elected, often in stand-alone elections in which turnout is low and the unions' organization prevails. This, Kline says, "is exactly the conversation I'm having with my new members."
He notes that in Minnesota, since school board elections were moved to regular election days, some people not supported by the unions have won.
He emphatically favors "a greatly reduced federal footprint" in primary and secondary education. About NCLB, he is decorous, calling it "well-intentioned." What do teachers in his district think? "They hate it."
This is understandable, given Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's recent estimate that more than 80,000 of the nation's 100,000 public schools are going to fail to meet NCLB's requirement of "adequate yearly progress" when that is measured in testing this spring.
Duncan says 82 percent could fail, compared to 37 percent last year. Such a one-year increase would be startling, but the trend is inauspicious: 28 percent failed in the 2006-07 school year.
And success — make that "success" — might be worse than failure. NCLB decrees that schools shall achieve 100 percent proficiency by 2014, which is a powerful incentive for states to define proficiency down.
The New York Times reports: "In South Carolina, about 81 percent of elementary and middle schools missed targets in 2008. The state Legislature responded by reducing the level of achievement defined as proficient, and the next year the proportion of South Carolina schools missing targets dropped to 41 percent."
There also are reasons to suspect that NCLB's threat of labeling schools as failures constitutes an incentive to cheat. In a number of jurisdictions, including 103 schools in the District of Columbia, machines that grade the tests have detected suspiciously high levels of erasures as test-takers changed incorrect to correct answers.
Kline promises that the current system for measuring "adequate yearly progress" "will not exist when we are done." And he says "we have to get rid of this 'highly qualified teacher' thing" in NCLB. He thinks "qualified" is shorthand for teachers processed by the normal credentialing apparatus of education schools and departments.
The stress, Kline says, should be on "highly effective teachers." He favors more charter schools — public schools operating outside union restrictions. He notes that when unions say these schools are "unfair" because "they work under different rules," he tersely responds: "Precisely."
There are 14,000 more or less autonomous school districts. Kline knows that at this moment of waning confidence in the federal government, it is strange to assume that leverage from a combination of national tests and national money can efficiently improve the system.
And it is stranger still to assume that even if this combination could do so, Washington has the knowledge to move all 14,000 in the right direction.
In this Marine from Minnesota, the man and the moment have met.
George Will's email address is georgewill(at)washpost.com.
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