Solid GOP Majority in Congress Could Boost Trump's K-12 Policy Hand

Fall foliage frames the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 8.
Fall foliage frames the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 8.
—Susan Walsh/AP

Little shakeup seen for key committees

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As he sets his policy agenda, president-elect Donald Trump will get to collaborate on education issues with a Congress that will remain under Republican control in both chambers, with—at this point—little shift in the leadership of key legislative committees.

There will be a new head of the House Education and the Workforce committee: The current chairman, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., is retiring at the end of this session of Congress. The lawmaker perhaps most likely to replace him, Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, has the reputation of being more partisan than Kline. Still, she was a co-sponsor of the 2014 bipartisan bill that reauthorized the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

In the Senate, the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee is chaired by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who worked in a bipartisan fashion with Democrats last year on passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the newest version of the main K-12 education law. The only member of the Senate education committee to lose his or her re-election bid was Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who lost his bid for re-election to Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. Fellow committee member Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., also won his race.

News reports Wednesday morning tallied 51 Republican senators and 47 Democrats in the new Congress; in the House, the GOP could count 236 members, compared to 191 for the Democrats.

So far, the only relatively detailed Trump K-12 policy proposal that may make its way to Congress is a $20 billion school choice program that would pay for disadvantaged students to attend private, charter, magnet, and traditional public schools of their choice. But in 2015, during negotiations over what became ESSA, lawmakers rejected a very similar idea to make federal funds for those students "portable" to both public and private schools. So it's not clear that Congress will put serious energy behind that proposal, if Trump advances it.

Members of Congress may also have to consider a push by Trump to eliminate the Education Department altogether. During the campaign, Trump had pledged to drastically cut or eliminate the U.S. Department of Education during his presidency.

In spite of the broader gridlock in Congress recently, lawmakers have been fairly active in moving bills along, and in the case of the Every Student Succeeds Act, over the finish line. But in many cases, the real political challenge comes when the full House and Senate vote on bills, said Jamie Fasteau, the director of education policy at the Emerson Collective (which advocates for educational equity) and a former top education staffer for retired Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.

"I think both of these committees could get a lot done. But that's not where the bills end," Fasteau said in an interview prior to the election.

To-Do List

Congress still has several education-related issues on its plate, a few of which could be taken care of in the lame-duck session before Trump takes office. The House, for example, passed reauthorizations of career and technical education and juvenile-justice laws earlier this year, creating at least a chance for bills that Obama could sign before leaving office in mid-January.

Even if that career and technical education bill doesn't get done during the lame-duck session, Fasteau is still optimistic for its fate in the next Congress, because, "It is such an important issue for our Republican members. And it just garners less attention than a lot of other issues. It could be something that moves through quietly."

Other challenging education issues, however, will be left to the next session of Congress, in conjunction with the next administration.

Those include reauthorizing the Higher Education Act as well as the Head Start federal preschool program and considering any early-childhood education and child-welfare proposals from Trump. Both the HEA and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which governs special education, are well overdue for reauthorization.

Although Trump did not discuss it in detail on the campaign trail, he did propose policies designed to reduce the financial burden of higher education, such as capping repayments on federal student loans at 12.5 percent of income. It's unclear how House Republicans, as well as Democrats, will react to those specific proposals.

Kline's departure, in particular, could make things even more difficult for education in Congress, given his record of moving bills out of his committee and working with Democrats to draw up relatively popular bills.

"The wild card there would be the new leadership of the House education and workforce committee and whether Kline's approach would continue in Congress," said Martin West, an associate professor of education at Harvard University who has advised both Alexander and 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on education issues. "You could see work continue on these secondary bills. But what's most important with respect to Congress is what control of Congress means for any proposals to advance new spending, which are much more difficult to envision with the Republicans controlling the House than would be the case otherwise."

Still, on higher education, West said he could see Congress adopting policies to streamline the process of applying for federal student loans and simplifying how students repay them.

Leadership Approach

Then there's how the leadership in Congress approaches oversight of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which could be subjected to an awkward and controversial transition from one administration to the next.

Democrats, and in particular those who favor strong student and school accountability, will be anxiously watching the Trump administration to see if it rescinds or reconsiders ESSA accountability and spending regulations from the Obama administration. Republicans, meanwhile, will probably feel emboldened to press education officials to let states and districts have more of a say in ESSA regulations, and possibly rescind the Obama regulations altogether.

'Political Theater'

But beyond the bills and the control of committees, the attitude members take, especially during the first phase of the Trump administration, will also be crucial.

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The real worry for many observers and advocates is that education will be sucked into any broader and more-divisive partisan dynamics that prevent Congress from getting much work done. Fierce debates about how the department should regulate ESSA also show that education hasn't been totally immune from the more-typical Washington bickering that can impede legislation or regulations.

"Both parties stand to be able to contribute to the political theater that puts politics before policy," said Noelle Ellerson, the associate executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, in an interview prior to the election.

Vol. 36, Issue 13, Pages 18-19

Published in Print: November 14, 2016, as Ed. Policy on Simmer as GOP Holds Congress
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