I have had the pleasure of interviewing Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., a few times in my course of covering Congress. Every inch of wall space in his sizable Capitol Hill office is covered with emblems of San Francisco. There are posters from the Fillmore in the '70s. There might one of the Rolling Stones, but I honestly can't be sure. All that non-Washington pop art was distracting when I was there to concentrate on serious stuff like education policy.
So it made me sad when Miller announced that he will retire last week. The Rayburn House Office Building will be less interesting without the ghost of Janis Joplin lingering around.
Groovy music aside, Miller was no slouch on the policy front. His main congressional committee over the course of his four-decade career—Education and Labor—highlights his two favorite causes. Of course, "Education and Labor" is the name for the committee when Democrats are in charge. Republicans, chafing at the idea of "labor" in the title, have alternately called it the Committee on Economic and Education Opportunities and the Committee on Education and the Workforce. Miller chaired the committee (which he renamed Education and Labor) from 2007 to 2010. He now is the ranking member on the Education and the Workforce Committee.
If hippy icons and shifting committee names seem too casual a way to talk about one of the longest serving House Democrats and a champion of education reform, so be it. That's Miller's style. He isn't afraid to curse during interviews. He has sported a decidedly non-corporate mustache for his entire political career. He owns a row house on Capitol Hill where three of his Democrat buddies crash during the week.
Miller has a booming voice for delivering his unapologetic liberal message about finding ways to equalize opportunities for the lower classes. He has said since forever that quality education is the best way to lift people out of poverty. He's not afraid to make a few people uncomfortable in advocating for it. If your teacher is unqualified, he or she needs to go. If you're school is failing, you need to know.
Here's what Miller said about the education law he helped write when I interviewed him in 2011: "No Child Left Behind is a very basic, basic law. It's just like that camera. We just took a snapshot. We took a snapshot of schools all across the country and said this is what it looks like. Six percent of these kids are reading at grade level. None of them are being taught by an [actual] qualified teacher. Fifty percent of them are being taught by a 'qualified teacher' under this stupid little definition we have. They went, 'What the [expletive] is going on in this school?'"
When I asked him how soon he realized that states would take advantage of NCLB's loopholes on measuring student achievement, he slid down in his seat and sighed. "It took me about five minutes to realize it after it passed."
Miller has championed liberal and conservative causes alike, particularly if they further the development of young people. He is a staunch advocate for a minimum wage hike, universal pre-K, and Obamacare. (He got elected on a promise of single-payer health care.) Yet he also sponsored legislation with Republicans to promote charter schools, a concept that makes his friends in organized labor a little squeamish. If there are policy disagreements between Miller and his colleagues, they are always friendly. He jokes during committee meetings, even when he knows he's going to lose, and moves on to the next battle front. He knows how to strike a deal when there is one to be struck. And he also knows often that deal won't be the perfect solution, as with NCLB.
"I fight every moment of the day not to become cynical," he told me. I would argue that he has accomplished that feat.
For our insiders: Tell us your favorite George Miller moment. How has he influenced the way we think about education over the years? How has he influenced teacher quality, an early pet project of his? What about school standards? He is definitely an education reformer, but what exactly does that mean? What will you miss about him?
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