What To Expect From a New Year And a New Congress

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

The dawning of a new year means that the world is given another opportunity to renew itself and to face old challenges with a fresh spirit of enthusiasm. But in the world of schooling a fear lingers that the new conservative political regimes chosen in the November elections may have plans to implement initiatives in 1995 which in the past have brought dread to the minds of those interested in maintaining public education as a bedrock institution in American society.

I cannot speak to all the things which the new year may bring to American education, but I can give some perspective on what may occur at the top of the political heap in Washington. And let me be quick to say that public education has the potential to be stronger at the end of the year than at the beginning, at least in terms of national support, if educators, business, and the public understand the enormous challenges to be faced and work extremely hard to find the best solutions, and do this work as far as can possibly be done with both parties, the Democrats now in the minority, and, very importantly, the Republicans who now control the levers of power in the Congress.

The Republicans' taking control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate is politically earth shattering because that party has not controlled both of those institutions for 40 years, and in that same period had control of one body, the Senate, for only six years. This changeover, though, has the potential to benefit both the Republican and the Democratic parties as well as the institutions themselves.

In the House, the Republicans were in the minority for a solid 40 years, and before the surprise of November had little prospect of getting into the majority for many more years. In a situation like that, a minority-party member has two options: He or she may collaborate with the majority-party members and have some imprint on legislation but then have to support, in return, much that that person may not favor. Alternatively, the minority-party member can become a legislative guerrilla or a negativist and oppose all or most of what the majority wants. Needless to say, neither of these courses of action is good for individuals or for the legislative bodies.

Conversely, when a majority party, like the Democrats in the House, is in power so long--and 40 years is a long time anywhere--it begins to presume that it is owed that authority. Unfortunately, this also means that lobbyists and the political-action committees continually cater to these legislators, thereby reinforcing their attitude. Neither is that healthy for individuals or for a party. It will be good in the new Congress for the Republicans to have to govern and to make some hard choices instead of catching crumbs off the legislative table or throwing bombs at the real decisionmakers, and it will be good for the Democrats to think through better what they really stand for. In this sense the change brought about by the elections will be good for our political process.

A second beneficial political change that the Republicans have already started is to make more sense out of the structures of the House and the Senate. For instance, there were too many committees and too many subcommittees, which resulted in too many bills to consider. Part of this diffusion of power resulted from the major upheaval in Congress during the Watergate elections of 1974, which diluted the powers of the legislative leadership and made the institutions much less coherent and more difficult to focus. Now is the time to recentralize some power in the hands of the leaders and to make the institutions more efficient.

Furthermore, education has lucked out in terms of the leadership of the House and Senate education committees--Rep. Bill Goodling from Pennsylvania, a former educator, will be the chairman of the House panel, and Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, a political moderate, will head the Senate panel. In addition, Representative Goodling and Senator Kassebaum will be backed up by other fine legislators, such as Rep. Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin in the House and Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont in the Senate. It would be hard to find a better group of leaders for education in the Republican Party.

The problem, though, is that with the emerging centralization of power in the hands of the new leadership, especially in the House, the committee chairs will not control the agenda as they did under the Democrats in the prior Congresses. Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and the House majority leader, Dick Armey of Texas, who are politically both to the right, will in particular have strong views on many of these issues, and their wishes may countermand the views of the more moderate committee leaders. The issue to watch is aid to private schools in the form of vouchers or choice. In the past, Republican committee leaders have usually opposed such initiatives vocally or silently, but now there will be much stronger support for these ideas from the party leadership and the rank and file.

In sum, the political changes brought about by the November elections have the potential to bring about much good. The Republicans may become more responsible, and the Democrats may gain a clearer idea of what they are willing to fight for. Lastly, the policy apparatus of Congress may also become more efficient.

Now let's move on to the policies which must be confronted, and this may not present as sanguine a picture.

President Clinton was very lucky in that his entire education agenda was enacted in the last Congress. Head Start was expanded and improved, the Goals 2000 act set the nation firmly on the path of curriculum reform based on high standards, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was aligned with standards reform and made into a more coherent and flexible group of programs, a school-to-work bill was passed, a federal research agenda was established, the Americorps was created to help improve local communities as well as to help volunteers pay for postsecondary education, and the multi-billion-dollar student-loan program was streamlined and made more affordable to students. There was little that Mr. Clinton wanted in education that he did not get enacted in 1993 and 1994.

If the President had not been as successful as he was last year, he would have before him a plateful of problems this year as the Republicans try to show that their agenda is different from the Democrats'. But he was even more fortunate because some major parts of his agenda were inherited from his predecessor, George Bush, and other Republicans. Goals 2000 is the child of Mr. Bush's America 2000 plan, the school-to-work program is an offshoot of a plan on the transition between high school and work or college which likewise was begun by President Bush, and direct college loans have Republican paternity in Rep. Tom Petri of Wisconsin and former Sen. Dave Durenberger of Minnesota. So, the origins of President Clinton's agenda for education were not sharply partisan, and most of the bills passed with substantial Republican support.

This is not to say, though, that there will be no acrimonious clashes over education in 1995. First, Speaker Gingrich has declared that the first 100 days of the new Congress will be devoted to carrying out the House Republicans' "Contract With America." This collection of campaign promises involves increases in defense spending, cuts in taxes, and decreases in spending on domestic programs. Republican budgetary estimates calculate that it would cost the federal treasury anywhere from several hundreds of billions of dollars to $1 trillion over five years to pay for all of these promises. Since the entire federal budget is about $1.5 trillion a year, and since the contract puts Social Security off the list of programs to be cut (as well as defense and interest payments), the implementation of this full agenda could mean severe cutbacks in education and other social areas.

Second, a mantra of the new Republican majority is to return power to the states and to local governments. "Block grants" are usually the code used to connote this rearrangement of responsibility among the three levels of government in our federal system. Those who are old enough to remember the first two runs of this movie--"special revenue-sharing" under President Richard Nixon and "block grants" under President Ronald Reagan--will recall that such proposals were accompanied by requests for less money under the theory that fewer programs meant lower administrative costs. The other feature of the earlier versions of the block grants was that the power was vested in the governors or in other state officials to pick and choose among eligible recipients. Presumably these two aspects will be included in these new proposals, especially if the implementation of the Contract With America costs so much money and funds must be found somewhere.

In education there are already two examples offered of what a block grant could mean. Senator Kassebaum and Representative Goodling have both bemoaned the plethora of federal job-training programs, including vocational education; and they may move to combine all these programs into a single block grant. The Republican leadership has also talked of a nutrition block grant which would fold together the school-lunch and school-breakfast programs with food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, and several other programs, and turn them all over to the states for administration.

A characteristic of the proposed nutrition block grant which would not apply to the job-training consolidation has to do with the funding mechanism now used. Under current law, if a person can verify that he or she is at a certain low income level, that person is entitled to receive food stamps, or the school is entitled to receive a payment to provide a free or reduced-price lunch or breakfast. The Republican proposal would eliminate that aspect of the funding--the so-called "entitlement"--and instead give the states a set amount of money that would have to be divided among all the eligible recipients. No one would be entitled to anything, according to the drafts of the legislation, because the new Congressional leaders are trying to bring federal spending under more control and do not want to have to lay out more money if there are more poor people eligible.

While the specifics of the nutrition block grant may change, if we presume that this is how the legislation will be structured, then the essence of it will be that state officials will have fewer federal dollars with which to provide nutrition services, and when providing these services, they will have to choose among poor pregnant mothers in health clinics, poor people seeking food assistance, and poor children not able to afford a school lunch. Further, without any entitlement mechanism to automatically increase the funds, it will mean that there will be even less available to support the need for greater services if the economy does poorly and more people qualify. In the case of job training, a block grant potentially could mean that a state could choose to use no funds for training in the high schools and instead shift all training into adult programs.

Related to these issues is a loud demand from the states for no "unfunded federal mandates." The principle is that no layer of government--federal, state, or local--ought to impose any burden on a lower layer of government without paying for all or part of the cost. However, the federal civil-rights laws, including Title IX forbidding discrimination on the basis of sex in education activities, are unfunded mandates because state and local governments have to comply regardless of the level of federal funding. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires the education of disabled children in the most appropriate setting even though the federal government pays only for about 8 percent of the cost. Which of these unfunded mandates is to be eliminated? This is yet another challenge facing those moving from the role of critics with little responsibility to decisionmakers who will have to face the consequences of their actions.

Block grants and unfunded mandates are slogans clothed in the garments of local control: "Big Brother does not know best," and "The government closest to the people is the best to make decisions." But the new Republican leaders will find problems squaring this philosophy, which they claim is a fundamental belief of their party, with the tendency of their Congressional members to override local control and to impose federal sanctions in the area of morality.

During the past Congress, Republican amendments were offered to education bills denying federal funds to any school district not permitting "constitutionally protected" prayer, not permitting a moment of silence at the beginning of the school day, condoning homosexuality as a positive lifestyle, permitting the distribution of condoms to students, not expelling a student for bringing a gun to school, and not promoting the virtue of sexual abstinence as a means of avoiding the transmission of sexual diseases. Democrats also joined in the rush to limit local and state control of education by adopting the first federally enforced policies expelling for one year any student bringing a gun to school.

How can the new Republican leaders in education propound the principle of local control of education through block grants and the elimination of unfunded mandates and then in the same bills adopt a Washington-knows-best attitude when it comes to sexual and other social issues? Doesn't imposing such policies turn on its head the idea that local leaders ought to be trusted? This too will be a dilemma that members of Congress shifting from the relatively powerless position of being in the minority to assuming leadership positions will have to confront.

Now that we have worked our way through the changes which the elections will bring about in the politics and policies at the national level, let me add a word about the processes which may be used to implement these changes: Expect fast action. And, if you want any influence at all over the outcomes of these changes, take even faster action to become involved in the debates that begin this week and will continue for the next six months. Any delay means that things will happen to you without any input on your part. Similar to the strategy adopted by Presidents Reagan and Clinton in 1981 and 1993 respectively, the new Republican leadership will most likely fold most of its policy changes into one package and push for one vote and fast action.

The only way that educators, the business community, and the public can have a say in these decisions is to organize through national organizations and make their views known in Congress very quickly. If you feel the wrong course of action is being adopted, visit the new Republican leaders, ask what they plan to do, ask to testify, give advice, and quickly organize. Also work with the Democrats, the new minority party, since they have proven themselves over the years to be willing to fight hard for federal aid to education. Sitting on your hands now means that it will be dumped on your heads later.

Vol. 14, Issue 16, Pages 35, 56

Published in Print: January 11, 1995, as What To Expect From a New Year And a New Congress
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories