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Education Opinion

Echoes of 1994

By Andrew P. Kelly — November 03, 2010 3 min read
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Note: Andrew Kelly, a research fellow in education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, is guest-posting this week. He can be reached at andrew.kelly@aei.org.

In the wake of yesterday’s remarkable Republican surge, it’s hard to resist making the analogy to 1994. The Democrats’ situation is not nearly as dire today as it was in 1994, as they will maintain a small majority in the Senate. But there are important parallels: an energized group of challengers swept into office by an enthusiastic and dissatisfied Republican electorate, a new Republican majority with small government on its mind and social programs in its crosshairs, and a significant rightward shift in the states.

In the weeks after Election Day 1994--so heady for Republicans and so foreboding for Democrats--the big questions for ed policy observers were not whether the Gingrich Republicans would cut education funding or try to abolish the DOE, but how severe those cuts would be and whether the onslaught against ED could garner enough votes.

Should yesterday’s results raise similar questions? Like 1994, the electorate has signaled its dissatisfaction with the Democratic agenda in no uncertain terms. And soon-to-be freshmen Tea Partiers have been sharpening their budget-slashing knives and anti-government rhetoric for months now.

Before ed policy observers let their imaginations (or worst fears) run wild, it’s worth firing up the old time machine and taking a ride back to November 1994. What did the writers at Education Week think the Republican Revolution would bring? How much of the hand-wringing about education cuts and a reduced federal role proved to be much ado about nothing? Perhaps that will help us to predict what comes next this time around.

Two weeks after the ’94 midterms, Ed Week writer Mark Pitsch wrote (emphasis is mine):

The historic realignment will radically alter the prospects for education legislation and may curtail the federal role in setting education policy, which has taken on new importance under the Clinton Administration. Indeed, Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., who is in line to become the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said last week that he will embark on a comprehensive analysis of the federal role and federal programs. "There will be a major rethinking of what our role should be, but I think the first thing we should do is find out where we are and what we have done," said Mr. Goodling, a 20-year veteran of the House who has been the ranking Republican on the education panel since 1989. "There certainly will be less involvement from the federal government" under a Republican-controlled Congress, said Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., who will likely chair the Senate Subcommittee on Education, Arts, and Humanities."

A week later, this gloomy pronouncement:

Education and child-welfare advocates are bracing for an assault on entitlement, student-loan, and crime-prevention programs targeted for billions of dollars in cuts under the "Contract With America," the election pact signed by more than 300 g.o.p. House candidates and incumbents. Republicans leaders say the contract's 10 sweeping proposals will be introduced as legislation on the opening day of Congress. . . . Education advocates maintain, however, that it would be foolhardy to underestimate the threat the Republicans' contract may pose to education programs."

Finally, at the state level, advocates for choice were triumphant:

The overwhelming Republican victories in last week's elections have laid the groundwork for a big shift in state education policy, political observers said...Educators and others will feel the transformation quickly come January, according to Jeanne Allen, the president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform. "It is going to be a banner year for choice and charter schools, and a bad year for school-based management, school-finance reform, and other things that clearly have not helped to solve our problems," Ms. Allen predicted."

What actually happened? Most of these predictions never came to pass. Indeed, efforts to abolish the Department of Education failed, and federal education spending actually grew--and grew a lot--under the new Republican majority. All totaled, between the 1994 capture of the House and the Republican loss in 2006, total appropriations for the Department of Education almost tripled (in nominal dollars), and spending on elementary and secondary education grew by 2.5 times. Total discretionary spending shrank briefly after the ’94 election, but it started to grow again after 1996 and ultimately more than doubled between ’94 and ‘06.

What’s more, the ’94 elections actually sowed the seeds that eventually produced NCLB, one the most massive expansions of the federal role in education since the Great Society. George W. Bush won the governorship in Texas and went on to develop the “Texas-style accountability” at the core of the 2001 law. And the Republican majority that came to power in ’94 slowly moved away from a focus on reducing the federal role (and abolishing ED) and came to overwhelmingly support NCLB, working with Democrats to ferry it through Congress in 2001.

This year’s Republican surge could very well be different--the Tea Party candidates seem credible enough in their commitment to cut government spending and reduce the federal role in education. But the 1994 Republicans didn’t lack in the verve department, either. Granted, in 1994 the new chairs of the education committees (Goodling and Jeffords) were established Republican moderates with less appetite for the fire-breathing fiscal discipline of their insurgent peers (Jeffords was so moderate he eventually defected to the Democrats). In contrast, Rep. John Kline, who will become chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, has already signaled a desire to increase local control and flexibility and curb federal funding. But he has also highlighted some areas on which he has common ground with Secretary Duncan--things like merit pay and charter schools. Moreover, any bills passed by the House will still have to pass muster with a Democratic Senate, let alone obtain the President’s signature.

Thanks to their newly minted House majority, Republicans will leave their imprint on any upcoming rounds of education policymaking in Congress. But if history is a guide, this second Republican Revolution will be hard-pressed to fundamentally reduce the federal footprint in K-12 education.

--Andrew Kelly

These figures were incorrectly labeled as being in 2009 dollars in an earlier version of this post. They are based on nominal dollars.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.