Minnesota congressman steps forward to present GOP's revamped education agenda.
WASHINGTON - Rep. John Kline will land in the national spotlight this month as he leads a congressional hearing on school violence in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting that left 26 people dead in Connecticut.
It's the first hint of the pivotal role Kline, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, will play in the Republican Party's effort to redefine itself after the electoral losses of 2012.
Since the start of President Obama's second term, influential Republicans have been crafting an education- and jobs-centered agenda they hope will help win over a broader base of Americans.
Besides school safety, Kline also will lead the GOP push on issues party leaders hope will make them more relevant to minority and middle-class voters: private-school vouchers for children from lower-income families, college affordability and workforce training tailored to in-demand jobs.
"It will put him and his committee front and center on a lot of issues," said Vic Klatt, a Washington-based lobbyist and former policy director for the House Education Committee. "He'll be right in the thick of things."
As debate in Congress rages over climate change, immigration and gun control, education is the "one big domestic policy area where the Republicans may have an opening," said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Rep. George Miller, the lead Democrat on the House Education Committee, said he considers the Republican agenda an attempt to "put a human face" on a party that has seen its brand battered in recent years. "They're trying to repackage themselves," he said.
Some of the targeted issues, school safety among them, have emerged with urgency, but others, such as private-school vouchers, have brewed for years in Congress.
Kline's effort will meet resistance from congressional Democrats and educators in his home state, especially on vouchers.
"It's a nice bumper sticker for the Republicans," said Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, the state's 70,000-member teachers union. "If Chairman Kline takes up that issue, he is out of touch with what people want in Minnesota schools."
In a recent speech in which House Majority Leader Eric Cantor laid out the Republican road map for the next two years, Kline was the lone House member to merit a mention.
Cantor lauded vouchers as one tool to "move heaven and earth to fix our education system for the most vulnerable."
But critics say vouchers siphon tax dollars from public schools, often without having to accept the broad range of challenges many public schools face.
The disagreement doesn't stop with vouchers. Obama and House Speaker John Boehner have clashed on issues ranging from the federal government's role in K-12 education to student loans.
"Everyone agrees schools can and should do better," Hess said. "The disagreement is on how you do that."
Since the president laid out his second-term agenda during Tuesday's State of the Union address, Kline's committee has criticized several of Obama's education proposals, which include expanded preschool, more accountability for high schools and more affordable college options.
In his response to the State of the Union address, Kline noted that "too many schools are failing our children, a broken job-training system is limiting workers' ability to compete for in-demand jobs."
Klatt said Kline's committee has become increasingly partisan in recent years, particularly on education issues. The divide has gummed up the legislative process, stalling key initiatives. Members still have a glut of unresolved legislation left over from the last Congress, including renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Kline said Republican leaders have confidence in his ability to balance the needs of his committee members, allies and the Obama administration.
"[He's] up for the challenge," Klatt said. "But I'm glad he had a couple of years under his belt to get ready for this."
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell