Rep. George Miller, a leading force behind education policy and one of the last members of the freshmen class of Congress known as the “Watergate Babies,” is retiring from office.
Miller, who steered the nation’s major education reforms, including No Child Left Behind, during his 40 years representing Contra Costa County, announced Monday that he will not seek re-election after his current term expires at the end of this year.
“The impact will be enormous. His leadership, his knowledge, his commitment, his willingness to fight for what he believes in, is unparalleled in the House (of Representatives) on education,” said Bethany Little, a former education consultant to President Bill Clinton who is now with America Achieves, a nonprofit working to improve public education.
The 68-year-old Miller was traveling to Washington, D.C., on Monday and was not available for comment. In a statement on his website, Miller – who remains one of the leading liberals in Congress – said his decision to leave is not based on the increasing partisanship in Congress that has blocked most significant legislation for years, including the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, which is six years overdue. He said that 40 years is long enough.
“Since I came to Congress 40 years ago, I’ve woken up every day asking myself the same question – ‘What is my opportunity to do some good today?’ And I think that I have lived up to the high standard I set for myself when I first sought this job, with the same degree of commitment and passion now as when I first started,” Miller wrote.
As chair or ranking minority member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce since 1997, Miller, D-Martinez, has championed countless education measures including reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which guarantees free public education for children with disabilities; student loan reforms; the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act economic stimulus package, and universal preschool.
His foremost legacy, however, will most certainly be the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, which holds schools responsible for improving academic success for all students regardless of income, race, ethnicity, disability and English language proficiency.
Miller collaborated with the late Senator Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., Representative John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senator Judd Gregg, R-N.H., in writing the legislation, which passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed into law by President George W. Bush. The law pleased civil rights groups, but drew criticism from teachers’ unions who charged that using student scores on standardized tests as the measure of school accountability was deeply flawed.
Joel Packer, a principal at The Raben Group, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm, and who worked closely with Miller and his staff during his 25 years in governmental affairs at the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, said the Congressman holds strong beliefs; Miller is forceful, smart and articulate about pursuing them.
“He wasn’t afraid to take on whatever constituency he believed was blocking the policy,” Packer said. “He was also very focused on doing what he saw as the best things for kids, particularly low-income kids.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, praised Miller’s commitment to educational equity, while also acknowledging their disagreements.
“Though we didn’t agree on everything, Mr. Miller was always open to discussing how to best help kids succeeds. He held investment in public education to be essential,” Weingarten said in an email.
Two leading educators in California, State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson and Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education, both declined to comment on Miller’s retirement.
George Miller III was born in Richmond in 1945 into a political family. His father, George Miller Jr., was a Democratic state senator from 1948 until his death in 1969. The younger Miller ran unsuccessfully to succeed him in a special election. Miller was 29 when he was elected to Congress in 1974 as a part of a huge wave of 75 mostly young Democrats driven to reform Capitol Hill in the wake of the scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon. With Miller’s departure, California Congressman Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, will become the last of this ambitious group known as the “Watergate Babies.”
Miller’s departure is a double whammy for education in Congress. Early last year, another member of that group, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, also announced that he, too, will retire at the end of this term.
“We have shared many accomplishments over the years and I am hopeful that we will have a couple more policy victories to add to that list before we both leave office,” said Harkin in a statement.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called Miller’s work on behalf of children “unwavering.”
“I have valued George’s counsel, wisdom, and friendship and it has been an absolute privilege to work with him,” Duncan said in a statement. “Though his leadership will be sorely missed, I know that the influence of his work will be felt for generations.”
Miller plans to take some time to go sailing and hiking and enjoy himself when he leaves Washington, D.C. and then get back to work. Although as his statement indicated, his retirement from Congress doesn’t mean he plans to stop working.
“I’m proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish on behalf of children and families, working people and the environment,” he said, “and I look forward to working in new venues on the issues that have inspired me.”