Published Online: October 5, 2010
Published in Print: October 6, 2010, as Election Could Remake Congress' Face on K-12

Election Could Remake Congress' Face on K-12

Some Key Democrats Struggling to Return; Potential Newcomers May Sway Policy

Republicans are expected to gain big in a 2010 election season that has a number of Democratic lawmakers who have long been associated with education policy fighting for their political lives.

At the same time, some potential newcomers to Congress, on both the right and the left, are now poised to make their mark on K-12 issues, should they prevail in their closely watched races.

For the most part, few congressional candidates in either party are talking about the specifics of education policy, which is rarely a front-and-center issue in federal elections. But candidates are debating government spending, including for programs such as education, which saw unprecedented increases under the Obama administration, particularly through the politically divisive economic-stimulus program.

President Barack Obama warned voters in a speech in New Mexico on behalf of fellow Democrats last week that a GOP-controlled Congress would gut spending on schools and colleges in order to provide tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.

ENDANGERED INCUMBENTS

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.
A former Denver Schools chief, Sen. Bennet is one of the Obama Administration's go-to lawmakers when it comes to K-12 policy.


U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
A champion for increased education spending, Sen. Murray helped shepherd the recent education-jobs bill through Congress and has introduced comprehensive reading legislation.


U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.
Sen. Feingold, one of a handful of senators to vote against the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, has introduced a series of bills that seek to make the law more flexible for schools and revamp its standardized-testing requirements.

Republicans would “cut back our education spending by 20 percent and eliminate about 200,000 Head Start programs and reduce student aid to go to college for about 8 million students,” Mr. Obama said in a speech on Sept. 28.

Rep. John Kline, of Minnesota, currently the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee and likely to become its chairman if his party takes a majority in the House, called those claims “baseless.”

Republicans—who released a “Pledge to America” last month, outlining their broad governing principles—said they would like to bring federal discretionary spending levels back to where they were in fiscal year 2008, before enactment of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, meant to stabilize Wall Street, and the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. But the GOP is not going so far as to propose an overall spending level for education, or for particular programs, Rep. Kline argued.

“Instead of having an honest discussion about bringing fiscal responsibility back to Washington, D.C., the president is setting up a straw man with his claims about education funding,” Rep. Kline said.

The GOP pledge did not include any specifics on what Republicans would do on education policy if they took control of Congress.

But some Republican candidates backed by tea-party activists have called for significantly scaling back the federal role in K-12 policy by eliminating the U.S. Department of Education. Such candidates include Rand Paul, who is the Republican Senate nominee in Kentucky, and Sharron Angle, who is the GOP nominee in Nevada and is locked in a tight race against Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic Majority Leader. Mr. Paul is running against Jack Conway, the state’s attorney general. ("Federal Role on Education in Cross Hairs," July 14, 2010.)

Prompting Jitters

By nearly every projection, Republicans are expected to come out ahead in this election, possibly retaking the House of Representatives or even the Senate. And some education-redesign minded Democrats are worried that a Republican tidal wave might make surviving Democrats jittery about supporting policies such as expanded charter schools and performance pay. Those ideas are often shunned by teachers’ unions, who can provide valuable grassroots support—and money—to Democrats who may face tight races once the 2012 election race kicks into gear.

HOPEFULS

Richard Blumenthal
As his state's attorney general, the Democratic nominee for Connecticut's Senate sear initiated a lawsuit against the federal government, claiming that the No Child Left Behind Act is an illegal unfunded mandate.


Sharron Angle
As the GOP nominee for Senate in Nevada, Angle has advocated scrapping the U.S. Department of Education.


Rand Paul
As the GOP nominee for Senate in Kentucky, Paul has advocated scrapping the U.S. Department of Education.

Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee, said there had been a “pendulum swing” in the Democratic Party toward what he considers a more reform-minded approach to education policy.

“We do worry that a major loss would cause people to want to go back the other way toward the traditional base where teachers’ unions have been strongest,” he said.

Mr. Williams is closely watching the Colorado U.S. Senate race, where Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, a former Denver schools superintendent, is struggling to gain ground against Republican Ken Buck, a lawyer with substantial backing from tea-party activists.

Mr. Bennet is one of a small handful of candidates whom U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will stump for this fall. Mr. Bennet could have a lasting impact on the shape of education policy in the Senate for years to come, Secretary Duncan told reporters.

In the Senate, Mr. Bennet, who is one of the administration’s go-to lawmakers on education policy, joined with a group of other centrist Democrats to oppose efforts this summer to pay for an education-jobs bill by shifting funding for performance-pay programs, charter schools, and the $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition, the administration’s signature K-12 initiative. He also has introduced a bill that would provide help to principals and other school leaders interested in working in perennially foundering schools.

In the Colorado race, Mr. Buck is hammering Sen. Bennet for his support of the stimulus program, which included some $100 billion for education and created the Race to the Top program. The senator “is legislating unemployment spending money we don’t have on programs we don’t need,” Mr. Buck says in an ad.

For his part, Sen. Bennet is running an ad noting that Mr. Buck wants to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education and sees no need for the federal student lending program. Supporters of Mr. Buck have called the ads misleading.

Murray Under Siege

Meanwhile, in Washington state, Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat and former preschool teacher, is finding herself in a tough fight against Dino Rossi, a businessman and former state lawmaker, who nearly became governor in 2004.

Sen. Murray recently helped shepherd a $10 billion measure aimed at staving off education layoffs through Congress. She’s also the Senate sponsor of the Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation (LEARN) Act, which would support comprehensive state and local programs in reading and writing for students from birth to grade 12.

Sen. Murray “would definitely be missed” if she lost her race, said Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition in Washington. She has been “a strong advocate for class-size reduction for Title I” programs for disadvantaged students.

Mr. Rossi has pledged to help reduce government spending and the deficit. He has embraced a proposal, outlined in the GOP pledge, to shift all “unspent” stimulus funding back to the U.S. Treasury. It’s unclear what impact this idea would have on money provided to the U.S. Department of Education under the ARRA.

In Wisconsin, Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat who has served in the Senate for three terms, is losing ground to businessman Ron Johnson. Mr. Feingold was one of a handful of lawmakers to vote against the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. He has been a long-time critic of the law, which he says relies too heavily on flawed standardized tests and doesn’t provide enough flexibility for schools and teachers. Mr. Johnson has advocated for more local control in education policy.

The Senate would gain another vehement NCLB opponent if Richard Blumenthal wins the Connecticut race for an open Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Democrat. In 2005, Mr. Blumenthal, the state attorney general and now the Democratic senatorial nominee, filed a lawsuit claiming that the NCLB law, signed in 2002, is an illegal unfunded mandate because Congress didn’t come close to providing the amount of money authorized under the law.

His campaign website still has an anti-NCLB bent, promising that he would push for a rewrite of the law that relies less on standardized testing.

Mr. Blumenthal is running against Linda McMahon, the former chief executive officer of World Wrestling Entertainment, and a former member of the state school board, who emphasizes her support for charter schools.

Education has also come up in Delaware, where GOP senatorial nominee Christine O’Donnell, a tea-party backed candidate, won a surprise victory over Rep. Michael N. Castle in the Republican primary and is running against Chris Coons, the New Castle County executive. Ms. O’Donnell recently criticized the changes the Obama administration made to the federal student lending program. The legislation, passed along with the health care overhaul bill, shifted all student loans to the federal government, rather than relying on subsidized private lenders.

On his website, Mr. Coons says support services such as housing and health care can impact a child’s education. And he is a member of the boards of both the I Have a Dream Foundation, which seeks to increase college-access for low-income students, and the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, which helped develop the state’s winning Race to the Top application.

Vol. 30, Issue 06, Pages 17,20-21

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