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Harkin Retirement Could Have Big Impact on Education

Published:  February 4, 2013
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Photo courtesy of U.S. Senate

A ripple ran through the education world last week when Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, announced he would not run for reelection in 2014. Given his seniority and committee assignments, Harkin is one of the most powerful education lawmakers in Congress. What’s more, his retirement comes as a surprise, since he had amassed more than $2.7 million in his campaign war chest.

Harkin was elected to his Senate seat in 1984, and has since won four consecutive reelections; only four Senate Democrats are more senior. In 2009, after the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Harkin took the gavel for the HELP Committee. He also chairs the Labor, Health and Human Services Committee, as well as the Education Appropriations Subcommittee. He has participated in the writing and revision of dozens of pieces of critical education legislation, including the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act.

But beyond the political scramble his retirement announcement kicked off back in Iowa, Harkin’s absence could leave a vacuum on Capitol Hill. It is unclear which HELP Committee member will replace Harkin at the start of the 114th Congress. Last month, the second-most-senior Democrat on the HELP Committee, early education advocate Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), took over the late Sen. Daniel Inouye’s (D-HI) position as chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. And at the start of the new Congress, HELP Committee member Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) took over as chair of the Senate Budget Committee, so her plate may also be full. Some have speculated that self-described democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) remains the top choice, though that pick seems potentially too controversial for Democratic leadership in the Senate to make.

Perhaps the more immediate question is what Harkin will do with the rest of his time in office. His official retirement announcement included a list of remaining policy priorities, the first of which is “[m]oving forward with bills to ensure that all Americans are able to achieve the promise of a quality education – beginning in early childhood, continuing through elementary and high school, and culminating with higher education.“

As the Education Week blog Politics K-12 pointed out, a reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind, could interfere with the Obama administration’s efforts to overlay the law with waivers. But half a dozen education-related bills are up for reauthorization or are long overdue, including the Higher Education Act, the Child Care and Development Block Grant and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

It remains to be seen which, if any, of those laws will finally get its chance for reauthorization over the next two years. The politics of education policy are bound to be complicated by ongoing budget debates and could be overshadowed by other pressing issues, like the president’s new gun control initiative and recent legislative activity on immigration reform. But when education does take the stage in Congress, Harkin’s experience and guidance will be missed. “His leadership has been so important to the growth of early childhood learning programs,” says Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund, “including Early Head Start, Head Start and the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge.”


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