74 Interview: Sen. Tom Harkin on Endorsing Clinton Early and Why He’s Wary of ESSA

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Updated Aug. 3; see previous 74 interviews, including former Education Secretary Arne Duncan and U.S. Senator and education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander.

Sen. Tom Harkin, the liberal stalwart who represented Iowa in the House and Senate for a combined 40 years, came to a sad if predictable conclusion during his congressional career: Education is not a priority in America.

And that lack of focus has real consequences, he said, with the quality of a child’s education boiling down to the luck of which family he happens to be born into.

“Is that sort of a national statement of ours?” he asked rhetorically in an interview with The 74. “Is that what people want to campaign on? Is that what a president wants to stand for?”

Harkin served on the funding and bill-writing committees covering education for nearly his entire career in the Senate, serving as chairman of both. Under Harkin’s tenure at the Senate Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Congress passed long-overdue reauthorizations of bills governing federal child care subsidies and workforce training programs, and his committee released a blockbuster report on problems in the for-profit college sector.

The HELP Committee under his leadership twice approved rewrites of No Child Left Behind, but Harkin couldn’t get floor time to consider the bills in the full Senate. Unlike the Every Student Succeeds Act, Harkin’s proposals kept large parts of the NCLB federal accountability apparatus in place.

Harkin — compelled by the experiences of his late brother Frank, who was deaf — has long focused on issues surrounding disability. He wrote several smaller bills aimed at expanding the rights of students and others with disabilities and was the author of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act.

In the year and a half since his retirement from Congress, his main project has been organizing the inaugural Harkin International Disability Summit. The conference, Dec. 8 and 9 in Washington, D.C., will bring together disability advocates, educators, employers and others to discuss how to better provide productive, dignified work to people with disabilities.

The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

The 74: What do you think of the Every Student Succeeds Act?

Harkin: Overall, I give it a positive. I have concerns that, in fact, we are going back to where we were before and leaving it up to states and local education agencies to sort of self-correct and to make sure that students who have been underserved in the past are adequately served with qualified teachers and that they are included in all aspects of educational opportunities. That was the good thing about No Child Left Behind.

I was involved in No Child Left Behind, and I remember being at the White House … when [President] George Bush was there and we had agreed, basically I thought, agreed upon a funding stream for No Child Left Behind … The idea was there was going to be a funding stream for No Child Left Behind. That never materialized. We kept falling further and further behind. The hammer on No Child Left Behind stayed there, but the states and local education agencies were not given the resources … The Bush Administration reneged on the funding. We got wrapped up in the war and all that kind of stuff. We just never could get adequate funding for No Child Left Behind. A lot of people say NCLB was a failure. Well, it was a failure because we never funded it, adequately enough, more than anything else. 

The good thing, the really good thing about No Child Left Behind was that every subgroup had to be distinguished and subgroups have to be identified, and [there was] accountability for every subgroup. What we found was, even with the funding restrictions in No Child Left Behind, kids with disabilities were being included more and more, as a subgroup, and schools were held accountable. We found that the graduation rate … between 2002 and 2013, the national high school graduation rate increased from 47 percent to 62 percent for kids with disabilities. Now by God, that’s something that I like …

The good thing about this new bill, and I credit Sen. (Patty) Murray for doing this, is that it keeps this subgroup accountability. Therefore parents and communities are able to tell how well students are doing, especially students with disabilities and students living in poverty. To me, that was just essential and something that I insisted on in our bill when we passed it a couple years ago. You know we passed it out of our committee twice, but I could never get it on the floor … (I wanted) to go to the floor, but I wanted to see the House come up with a bipartisan bill like we did. I got Republican votes, even though some of them said they might want to try to amend it on the floor, I said, ‘That’s fine, that’s part of the process.’ But the House insisted on having a purely partisan bill. And therefore we never got to the floor. I credit Sen. (Lamar) Alexander and Sen. Murray for getting that done this year.

I am concerned, as I said, I’m concerned about LEAs (local education authorities, i.e. districts and school boards) now going back to where we were before, that there’s so much flexibility in there on how states determine how to intervene. We can identify the subgroups, but how are they going to intervene on this? And how’s the funding going to come to make sure that students with disabilities and others, high-need students, have the adequate resources, in order to succeed in (post)-secondary education? That’s my biggest concern.

Was your concern about funding about Title I or some separate NCLB-specific program?

There needs to be more Title I funding, and the Title I funding needs to be directed …

We had a problem with Title I money in the past and how it was distributed, and we changed it so it focused more Title I money on schools that were underperforming in high-poverty areas, for example … I’m just hopeful that this new law doesn’t backtrack on that. I’m afraid it might, in terms of the quote, flexibility, that states are given. And states are just as tight with their money in education as the federal government.

May I make a statement right up front here? It had become clear to me after 30 years on the Senate education committee … that education is simply not a priority in the United States of America, and it is not a priority in our states. It’s just not. It comes after everything else. It comes after you get your budgets for everything else, then you think about education. It is not a priority. People think it is, they say it is, but it’s simply not.

You look at Title I money and the money that the states are putting in, and a lot of times that money is skewed away from what it’s intended to do. And that’s what concerns me about this, quote, flexibility …

Local school boards have discriminated against poor kids and kids with disabilities for years, for decades. It was the well-placed schools that seemed to get all the money and all the resources. We tried to change that with Title I.

As you know, in America, our system of funding for elementary and secondary education is based on property taxes … Why is it that the quality of any American child’s education be determined by where that child lives? Why? I’ve been talking about this for years. If you’re lucky enough to be born to a wealthy or even an upper-middle income family and live in a great area, you’ve got a great school. If you’re unlucky enough to be born to a poor parent or a single parent and you’re in the inner city or a low-income rural area in Appalachia, well, you simply don’t have good schools. Is that sort of a national statement of ours? Is that what people want to campaign on? Is that what a president wants to stand for? …

Well, if you don’t, then you can’t just leave it up to local education agencies and local governments in states to fill that in, because this is based on property taxes. Some states do have equalization formulas in their budgets … but it never quite gets to the point of really thorough support and quite frankly, and here I’m going off a little bit, it’s not just a matter of equalization at this point. Some poor areas and some students in those areas, in rural areas, inner cities, need more aid. They need even more resources, i.e. money, to hire better teachers and have better schools and better equipment and better technology in order to move them up …  

It’s not just a matter of saying it. I read recently some state said they were going to make sure, I think it was New Jersey, that every student in the state gets the same … and they say well that’s fair. No it’s not fair. And so that’s why I’m coming full circle on this bill …

We’re going back to that old system, we’re going to leave it to the states and local communities, to make these decisions. We were there before and we saw what it got us. The one good thing about this bill is we still have accountability for the subgroups, they’ve got to be identified in how well they’re doing, and to me that is that bright spot in that piece of legislation.

There was something else in that bill that Patty Murray got, and that was early child education, it encourages states and LEAs to use Title I for early childhood programming. As long as that money is really targeted towards the low-income families and kids in poor areas, that could be a great boost, as long as that money’s not diluted in the way it has been in the past.

Would it be safe to assume you support the department’s proposed Title I funding regulations?

Without a doubt. Yes, of course. Again, I think I’m hearing from the other side ‘the national school board,’ here we go, trying to impose. No. We’re trying to solve a problem that’s been there for a long time and which we tried to solve with No Child Left Behind, and that was to redirect resources to areas that need it the most … Everything I’ve heard and read, this is the proper way to go, yes.

We’re overdue for a reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. What are you looking for the next time that comes up?

… Basically I can’t even call up a friend of mine, a senator that I know, to say here’s how I feel, here’s what I think, even though I’m not representing a company. [Ethics rules prohibit members of Congress from lobbying their former colleagues for two years after leaving office.] It’s really quite strict. I haven’t been able to do that, but in January I will be.

I hope that by next year we’ll see some movement on a reauthorization of IDEA. … Basically what needs to be done is more inclusion of kids with disabilities in mainstream education. I want the IDEA also to take what we did in the WIOA (Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act) bill (requiring states to set aside 15 percent of a certain pot of money to help students with disabilities transition into the workforce) …

I want to see IDEA also incorporate that into the new bill, not something separate and apart, but being part of IDEA. Just again, more inclusion, more accountability, more focus on assistance and support services for teachers in school …

You endorsed Hillary Clinton very early in the primary. Why?

I’ve known her for so long. I served with her on the education committee in the Senate, and I just know how well she works with others. She listens and absorbs things and can find common ground, and I think we sorely need that in the future. I agree with President Obama that she’s better prepared to be president than anyone in the last 100 years … That’s why I supported her.

And, of course, she’s long been a supporter of early childhood education, also one of your priorities.

… Back in the late ‘80s, first under Reagan and Bush there was this committee … This board was made up of all these big, high CEOs of all these companies. It started because President Reagan said he wanted to have a group of business people look at education in America and what we needed to do … He didn’t want a lot of pointy-headed liberals and people like that, he wanted business people who were successful to tell us what we needed to do in education …

After three or four years of hearings and examining education, their executive summary stated that we must understand that education begins at birth and the preparation for education begins before birth. The whole little book they put out was on how we have to focus on early childhood education, how we have to focus on maternal and child health care … and that was 1990.

I’ve been waving that book ever since. I think six years ago, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce commissioned another study … And guess what, here it is almost 20 years later, they said the same thing. Here’s the business community of America saying we’ve got to put more money into early childhood education. The business community, they get that, but we’ve never been able to get it through the thick heads of policymakers and governors …

We’ve got to put a lot more into early childhood education. I’ll lay you a bottom line, there won’t be an extra nickel for it. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? They’ll say you should do all this stuff but no one wants to pay for it because education simply is not a priority.

There hasn’t been a lot of discussion of K-12 education during this presidential campaign. To what do you attribute that? 

Education simply is not a priority among the people of America, and not a priority among the leadership of America, I mean political leadership. It’s just not. You give a lot of verbiage to it … and then we get down into battles … (and) you lose the big picture of how much money are we actually putting into education and what kind of priority do we make it so that our teachers are the best.

You go to Scandinavian countries, like I have, and to actually get into college and to get into a teacher prep … you have to graduate from high school at the top of your class. You can’t just have a C average. They won’t let you in to become a teacher. This country, hey, you’ve got a D average, they’ll let you in. Why don’t we start moving in that direction? If you are an A student, we’re going to pay for your college, you can become a teacher … we pay for everything and then we give them higher pay.

If you pay teachers the same equivalent that we’re paying people to write programs for computers and if you set qualifications high for teachers and make sure that they have a respectful place in our community. I grew up in a small town, 150 people, in Cumming, Iowa … I remember at an early age, Mary Powers and Mae Lynch, they were sort of the people we looked up to, they were the teachers, the people you want to emulate. They were highly respected as part of our community.

Why aren’t the candidates for president talking about it? Because it’s not a priority.

There’s a split in the Democratic party on education, between education reformers and teachers unions. Is that a new phenomenon?

It’s new in that teachers unions have become more prominent in the last 20 years I guess you’d say. I understand the teachers unions. I understand why a lot of them feel besieged … We’re asking teachers to do things in schools that we’ve never asked them to do before and that is to solve the problems that kids bring to school …

We know, we have the data, we know that the best teaching environment in say elementary school in early grades is like one teacher for a maximum, I think it’s 15 maybe or 12 (students). Heck, I’ve been to elementary schools where you get one teacher for 20, 25 kids. I understand the unions are trying to protect these teachers who are put upon to do a better job and they’re not given the resources to do that. I understand that dynamic.

It all comes back to how we’re going to fund education and whether or not we’re going to change the structure of a classroom. To me, no child in elementary school, at least in the first six grades, ought to be in a class of more than maybe even a dozen students. Period …

I’m very respectful of teachers unions, I can understand why they get so frustrated, and I can understand why there’s a clash between, say, local governments or state governments on a lot of issues …

Is it a problem for Democrats going forward? No. I think as a progressive, as a liberal, I say define the problem. We’ve defined the problem. We know classes are overcrowded. We know the best learning environment is a few kids in a classroom … OK, let’s do it. Well, that costs money and especially if you’re going to do it for low-income kids. Well, nobody wants to spend the money to do it.

Who would you recommend be appointed the next secretary of education, either a specific individual or a type of person?

I wouldn’t say a person, but I would say someone who is bold enough to really take to the American people what needs to be done and what the cost is and why we need to do it and maybe even work collaboratively, of course, with the president and with Congress to find the sort of funding streams that are needed to do this.

This is not some dark magic. We’ve got plenty of data, we know what needs to be done. I know there are those that still say the federal government shouldn’t do it, it should be the state and local governments. To a certain extent I don’t have a problem with that, so long as there is an overriding federal course of intervention for states and local communities that can’t do it or won’t do it, that drag their feet.

School boards tend to be very powerful and more often than not they’re made up of people that come from well-heeled families. Single mothers and others who are working day and night don’t generally run for school board. We need some oversight to make sure we’re not skewing the money away from low-income, high-need areas. We need a secretary of education that will do some new bold thinking and throw some things out there for people to think about …

We have in this country, a long time ago, way back, Abraham Lincoln’s time, even before, we decided that the federal government was going to be involved in higher ed (through land-grant universities.)

It wasn’t until the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that the federal government ever said elementary and secondary education is a national concern. Think about that, 200 years later we finally said, this is a national concern. So it’s only been in the last 40 years that we’ve dribbled along, looking at elementary and secondary education as a national concern.

I think we need now one more step, we need a secretary of education and a president who will say, OK, we went from higher ed as a national concern, and then we said elementary and secondary education is a national concern, now early childhood should be a national concern and focus on that.

That’s what I want to see in a secretary of education, someone who will just keep harping on a national priority. If you think education is a priority, you’re mistaken, and how do we make this a national propriety for state governments, local governments and the federal government.

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