In the Game

By Toch, Thomas | Phi Delta Kappan, May 2011 | Go to article overview

In the Game


Toch, Thomas, Phi Delta Kappan


Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, White House aides, and members of Congress have been working behind the scenes for months on a rewrite of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. But one of the key players in the negotiations is an earnest, high-energy mother of two young children who is hardly known outside of Washington: Bethany Little, the top education advisor to Sen. Tom Harkin (D Iowa), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP).

On Harkin's behalf, Little has been managing ESEA deliberations not only among Senate Democrats, but also with the chamber's Re publicans. She is often Harkin's emissary to Democratic allies in the White House and the Department of Education and to the many education organizations seeking to influence the ESEA reauthorization. Eventually, she'll be negotiating with the new Republican education leaders in the House, where some recently elected members have been pushing to end the Department of Education's cabinet status.

A quintessentially Washington career path brought Little, now 37, to this role. She came to D.C. from Miami, Fla., to attend Georgetown University, got into politics, and stayed. She did advance work for the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign in 1996. After a stint at a good government nonprofit, she landed a political appointment at the Department of Education and then moved to the White House domestic policy staff for two years, leaving on the last day of the second Clinton Administration. She moved up Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill, where she represented Sen. Patty Murray (D Washington) in drafting NCLB.

Little left the grinding pace of Hill life and the minority status of Senate Democrats to have children, now ages six and two. During that time, she became director of government relations at the nonprofit Children's Defense Fund and then vice president for policy and federal advocacy at the Alliance for Excellent Education, another Washington policy and advocacy group. When Democrats won back control of the Congress and Obama won the White House, the top education policy person on the Senate HELP committee, Carmel Martin, became Assistant Secretary of Education for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development. Sen. Ted Kennedy, the chair of the HELP committee, offered Little Martin's former job. After a long conversation with her husband about parenting and the demands of two unrelenting Washington jobs--her husband is director of public affairs at the Central Intelligence Agency and travels regularly--she returned to the Hill. And when Harkin took over the committee after Kennedy's death, he kept Little on.

Little now works out of a cramped HELP education "suite" on the 6th floor of the Hart Senate Office Building. She manages a staff of 10 with a policy portfolio that extends from early childhood education to college student aid and workforce development.

ESEA a Priority

While the HELP committee's work runs the education gamut, the reauthorization of ESEA, the major federal public education law, consumes Little's time. And though she helped write the last edition of the law a decade ago, she's quick to point out what she sees as its flaws: an overly rigid accountability system that favors affluent schools and imposes the same sanctions on slightly underperforming schools as on failing schools; ineffective school choice and tutoring programs; unintended incentives for states to lower standards; and not enough attention to the key issue of teacher quality.

Little and her colleagues are using the Obama Administration's blueprint, released over a year ago, as the source for many of the changes that she's negotiating. The Administration wants to maintain the NCLB mandate that states test students annually in a number of grades and report results by race and other categories because they want to ensure that school districts pay more attention to the poor, students of color, and other often overlooked groups. …

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