School Groups Pleased by Democratic Upsets
Last week's surprisingly strong Democratic electoral results may give President Clinton's education agenda a boost, but observers are quick to note that Republicans will still lead--and have control over education policy--in the new Congress.
The midterm elections had offered the GOP the opportunity to secure a larger majority in Congress. But an unpredictable electorate instead gave Democrats the votes to gain five seats in the House and hold their ground in the Senate.
Without the expected Republican gains, next year's federal education policy battles are likely to echo ones over school construction, teacher hiring, and education tax credits that the 105th Congress just concluded.
"Education was a top priority for voters this year, and yesterday's election results prove that Americans want their concerns seriously addressed," Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said the day after the Nov. 3 elections.
Vice President Al Gore declared the Democratic victories a message to Washington to focus on issues such as education, instead of the scandals that have dogged President Clinton.
"It was a night where the good guys won," said Bruce Hunter, a senior associate executive director of the Arlington, Va.- based American Association of School Administrators.
Bob Chase, the president of the 2.4-million member National Education Association, which typically supports Democratic candidates, boasted of a "great victory."
"As a result of this election, both branches of Congress promise to be more pro-public education," he said in a statement. The NEA named several newcomers whom the union expects to carry out its agenda against school vouchers and in support of Mr. Clinton's plans for funding billions of dollars in school construction projects and hiring new teachers.
The union's list of senators-elect included Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., John Edwards, D-N.C., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. The newly elected representatives named by the NEA were Judy Biggert, R-Ill., Dennis Moore, D-Kan., and Ken Lucas, D-Ky., who defeated home schooling proponent Gex Williams.
Committees Change Little
Not everyone saw the results in such black-and-white terms. Although it was an important election, Democrats shouldn't read the results as a mandate, warned Jay Diskey, the spokesman for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "Republicans are still in the majority in both the House and the Senate," he noted.
In fact, in the 106th Congress, the education and appropriations committees will look much the same as they did this year. Only one member of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that handles the education budget was defeated--Sen. Lauch Faircloth, a Republican from North Carolina.
Several major GOP players in education also claimed relatively easy victories last week, including Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, who chairs the Education and the Workforce Committee; Sen. Arlen Specter, also of Pennsylvania, who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees education; and Sen. Paul Coverdell of Georgia, who has sponsored several education initiatives, including a proposal to grant parents tax breaks on K-12 education savings accounts.
Democrats, meanwhile, scored several important wins on the Senate side. Among the victors were candidates who promoted President Clinton's education agenda, including Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, Mr. Schumer in New York, and incumbent Sen. Russell D. Feingold in Wisconsin.
Two of the stars of the 1992 election, dubbed "The Year of the Woman," also emerged victorious after tough races: Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who has promoted education technology initiatives, and Patty Murray, D-Wash., who sits on both the Senate appropriations subcommittee that handles education spending and the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee. Ms. Murray was a chief supporter of President Clinton's $1.2 billion initiative to hire new teachers.
But the Democrats lost their biggest proponent for a federally subsidized school construction plan in the Senate. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., was defeated, as expected, by conservative Republican state Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, a strong supporter of school choice.
The election returns--which maintained a 55-45 Republican-Democrat split in the Senate--dashed GOP hopes of holding 60 seats in the Senate. That would have given the Republicans the power to cut off filibusters, the minority party's most potent tactic in stalling legislation it opposes. The Democrats' pickups in the House mean the totals there will be 223 Republicans, 211 Democrats, and one Independent, who typically votes with the Democrats.
Adding to the Republicans' unease was the fact that they cut a pork-laden budget deal with President Clinton last month in order to avoid a government shutdown and still have time to campaign. ("Critics Doubt Teacher Plan's Effectiveness," Oct. 28, 1998.)
Nina Shokraii Rees, an education policy analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, said the election results have, at least temporarily, undercut some pieces of the conservative GOP agenda, including vouchers and block grants.
Still, if Republicans become better able to convey their proposals to voters, plans such as Mr. Coverdell's tax-free education savings accounts can win the support to override presidential veto threats, she added.
Fight for Leadership
Because of last week's disappointing GOP showing, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., could now face a challenge to his leadership post.
Mr. Gingrich was considered to be a strong voice in choosing the next chairman of the House subcommittee that handles K-12 issues, including next year's reauthorization of the programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
GOP Reps. Michael Castle, a moderate from Delaware, and Mark Souder, a conservative from Indiana, are believed to be the top contenders to replace Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., who did not seek re-election. Rep. Matthew Martinez, D-Calif., is currently the ranking minority member, but Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., may return to the subcommittee and assume that slot.
Mr. Hunter of the aasa said he doubts the House leadership's ideology will shift significantly. "The leadership will remain very conservative," he predicted.
Others have speculated that Senate Democrats will try to hold up passage of ESEA legislation until after the 2000 elections, when they will have the chance to regain several seats lost to the GOP in the 1994 and 1996 elections.
"I don't think it will be the large overhaul that it could have been," Ms. Rees of the Heritage Foundation said of the ESEA revisions. But Republicans still have the chance to get their message out through state leaders and other groups, she said.
Mr. Diskey said he expects a spirited debate. "The Republicans and Democrats will both be playing out their education reform themes" in the coming reauthorization, he said.
Vol. 18, Issue 11, Pages 20, 22Published in Print: November 11, 1998, as School Groups Pleased by Democratic Upsets