On June 14, 2001, Senator Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) voted with 90 of his colleagues to pass the No Child Left Behind Act. Only eight senators voted against it, including that future casualty of the Tea Party, Senator Bob Bennett (R., Utah).
Loath to follow in Bennett’s footsteps (into retirement), Hatch has been defending his right flank as the Utah GOP’s state convention draws near. The Club for Growth had encouraged Congressman Jason Chaffetz to primary Hatch, citing his vote for NCLB as another example of his supporting “policies that have grown government.” Chaffetz ultimately declined, but 36-year-old state senator Dan Liljenquist accepted the challenge. He also is targeting Hatch’s NCLB vote. “Dan’s position is there is no role for the federal government in education,” says Holly Richardson, his campaign chair.
Last October, Hatch announced that he now opposes NCLB. He voted against a reauthorization of the law considered by the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. He also voted for an amendment offered by Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) to repeal the law in its entirety.
“Education is the responsibility of our state and local governments,” Hatch said in a statement. “For that reason, I support significant reductions in the federal footprint on education.”
At first glance, Hatch’s move looks like a flip-flop — an endangered incumbent’s final plea for mercy. But a broader review of Hatch’s history on the subject indicates that he has always harbored doubts about NCLB.
While running for the Republican presidential nomination in 1999, Hatch voiced skepticism about George W. Bush’s education proposals. Although the senator argued that the federal government should help school districts with infrastructure costs, he also said he didn’t support funneling such assistance through “another big federal direct-spending program.” “We are walking a fine line between tax incentive and federal subsidy, between leveraging resources and establishing a new form of financial dependence,” Hatch warned in August of that year.
At the January 10, 2000 primary debate, moderator Tim Russert asked Hatch what he would do about rising college costs. Hatch replied, “I’d sure as heck get government out of education as much as I could because it’s wrecking education, and especially the federal government. The state governments, I think, can handle it. State and local governments can handle everything in education except for some very selected areas like civil rights in which I think the federal government has to enforce.”
Despite his professed confidence in states’ educational capabilities, Hatch also conceded that federal legislation could help them improve their performance. Asked by the youth-journalism organization Children’s PressLine in September 2004 how to ensure that NCLB’s funds were spent wisely, Hatch replied, “Well, I think we have to very much oversee how the monies are spent. Most of the states do a good job with education, but they can do a better job, and that’s what No Child Left Behind does. It tests the teachers so that they have to be better.”
Nonetheless, Hatch’s home state chafed at the law’s requirements. In January 2004, state representative Margaret Dayton introduced a bill to opt out of NCLB, but the state legislature backed away from the measure after the Department of Education threatened to withhold $106 million in funding. The next year, Dayton introduced a tweaked version that merely instructed state officials to place Utah’s education requirements ahead of the federal government’s. For instance, Utah measured academic achievement by tracking students’ individual performances from grade to grade. No Child Left Behind, on the other hand, required that states compare students’ test scores with those of other students at the same grade level in previous years. In February 2005, the state house passed the bill unanimously.
Hatch sided with the state. At education secretary Margaret Spellings’s confirmation hearings in January 2005, Hatch raised some concerns about the law. “While I support the concept of No Child Left Behind, the law has turned out to need some modifications,” Hatch said. “We need to fund it better, and too many schools do not make Annual Yearly Progress because they just do not understand what is required, or misinterpreted the law.”
After Spellings’s confirmation, Hatch reiterated in a press release: “Make no mistake, I am a strong advocate for local control of education and want to make sure that there is sufficient flexibility for our states within NCLB. But even those who don’t agree with everything in NCLB admit that it has brought focus on making sure every child is progressing, and spurred innovative approaches to tracking student achievement.”
In March 2005, Hatch met with Spellings to negotiate greater leeway for states in meeting the law’s standards. The next month, Spellings agreed to grant more “flexibility.” Hatch also lobbied the education department to revise the law so that more of Utah’s teachers would be considered “highly qualified.”
That said, Hatch has also sung the law’s praises at times. In January 2009, Hatch delivered a tribute to outgoing President Bush, in which he mentioned NCLB as one of Bush’s achievements. “President Bush campaigned on education reform, having the courage to speak of what he called the bigotry of low expectations,” Hatch said. “He delivered education reform with the No Child Left Behind Act, and I can tell you what a difference it has made.”
“Empowering teachers to help students meet higher expectations works, and that has become federal educational policy under President Bush,” Hatch concluded. “I am hopeful that the new president’s Secretary of Education will recognize and build on the reform-oriented approach of the Bush administration through supporting policies such as charter schools and school choice.”
And in December 2009, Hatch introduced legislation with Senator Al Franken (D., Minn.) to direct the federal government to provide training for principals. “Senator Hatch and I will continue to work in the coming months to ensure that we invest in principal recruitment, training, and retention so that our schools have the leadership they need to do right by our students,” Franken said in a statement.
What to make of all this? Hatch seems comfortable with using the federal government to set standards for and provide resources to the states. But he’s also been protective about the states’ control over the education process itself.
One indicator of Hatch’s education preferences may be his voting pattern. Like most of the Utah congressional delegation, Hatch voted along party lines during most of the Bush presidency. In August 2008, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that Hatch voted with his party 93 percent of the time, and with the president 91 percent of the time.
In other words, in a more conservative Republican party, Hatch would probably be more likely to vote for less federal involvement in education. That may not be the most comforting thought to primary voters, but it also may give them less cause for alarm.
— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review.