BURNSVILLE, Minn. — The smooth flight through Congress that President Barack Obama's education plans enjoyed could soon crash into Republican Rep. John Kline, a deficit hawk and retired Marine pilot who once carried the nation's nuclear launch codes for Ronald Reagan.
The Minnesota Republican expects to take over leadership of the House Education and Labor Committee when Congress reconvenes. He said it's time to pull Washington out of the nation's classrooms and stop using billions in federal dollars to bail out state education budgets.
"We have got to see if there is some way to fix it without putting the federal government in charge of everything," Kline said.
While outgoing chairman committee chairman Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., was considered a natural ally of Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Kline's relationship with him promises to be more complicated.
Kline, 63, said he liked Duncan personally and supported many of his policies, especially the ones opposed by teachers unions. "I like charter schools. I like performance pay for teachers," he said, but "there's a lot of tensions we've got to work around."
Those tensions come from Kline's dislike of rising deficits and what he considers the creeping influence of Washington into areas best controlled by states. That friction could flare up when the committee takes up the overhaul of the No Child Left Behind law next year.
The 2002 law championed by President George W. Bush was "the largest intrusion of the federal government in public education, ever," Kline said. "We have bipartisan consensus that we need to fix it."
Obama presented his blueprint for re-writing the law in March with an emphasis on ensuring students are ready for college or a career when they graduate from high school, a departure from the current law's focus on getting students to perform at their grade level by 2014.
But Kline said that plan wasn't the answer because it gave Washington too much power. "It's an important part of the dialogue, but the reforms themselves won't look like the blueprint," he said.
For one thing, he said, Republicans don't like how the plan encourages states to adopt common education standards.
"These national standards too easily morph into national assessments which morph into a national curriculum," he said.
On Nov. 2, Kline was re-elected to a fifth term with 63 percent of the vote in Minnesota's 2nd District, which includes the wealthy suburbs south and west of Minneapolis. Unlike many veteran Republican lawmakers, he had the support of tea party leaders. Sarah Palin's Sarah PAC contributed $5,000 to his campaign.
While he wants to cut the deficit, Kline also favors doubling spending on special education to meet the federal government's legal commitment to pay 40 percent of the special ed mandates put on states in 1975.
That $14 billion increase "would help every school district in America," Kline said.
Before being elected in 2002, Kline spent 25 years in the Marine Corps. He flew helicopter missions in Vietnam, ferried presidents in Marine One and carried the nuclear "football" as the personal military aide to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Kline still keeps a copy of "The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan" and "The Reagan Diaries" on his desk.
While known in Minnesota as a reliable conservative, he's also known for a moderate personality.
"I would rather have a discussion with a thoughtful, intelligent representative than one that is, you know, based solely on ideology," said Tom Dooher, president of the Minnesota teachers union, who is known for his high-profile sparring with statehouse Republicans. "My experience with the representative is that he is that thoughtful, intelligent representative."
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