House Democrats to Pursue Education Agenda With New Majority

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Democrats will have the chance to keep their promises to make college affordable now that they have won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. As for the No Child Left Behind Act, the leading House Democrat on education has signaled his desire to retain the law’s central accountability provisions.

The control of the Senate remained in the balance early today, though, because the close Virginia race hasn’t been decided. Democrat Jim Webb leads incumbent Republican George Allen by about 8,000 votes, a margin small enough to trigger a recount that could take several weeks. In Montana, state Sen. John Tester declared himself the winner by a margin of 2,000 votes, but that has yet to be confirmed. Democrats need win both seats to have the majority in the Senate.

Throughout the campaign, House Democratic leaders promised to push an agenda that would lower student-loan interest rates in their initial rush of legislation and later offer tax credits to help families pay college expenses.

In addition, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the leading candidate to become the chairman of the House education committee, said he would work with President Bush and Republicans to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind law as scheduled next year. The almost 5-year0old law is the centerpiece of President Bush’s education agenda.

Mr. Miller said the education panel would exam critical issues, such as how to measure student growth in state accountability systems and how to assess students with disabilities and English language learning. And he said he would try to build a coalition that could generate enough support to pass changes to the law.

“I think the fact of the matter is that there’s a lot of critics of the bill,” he said in an interview. “But there’s a lot of supporters of the legislation in terms of we have an obligation to provide a first class learning opportunity to poor and minority children in this country.”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who would be in line to chair the Senate education committee under a Democratic majority, also supports the law’s basic tenets.

At a White House press conference this afternoon, President Bush said he would work with Democrats to develop bipartisan bills on a variety of issues, specifically including the No Child Left Behind law.

“All I know to do is to make decisions based upon principles that I believe are important, and now work with Democrat leaders in the Congress because they control the committees and they control the flow of bills. And I'm going to do that for the good of the country,” the president said.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a conference call with reporters this morning that she was looking forward to working with Democrats on the NCLB reauthorization and on higher education policy.

She said that “bipartisanship is an asset in education policy” and that the No Child Left Behind law “has been and continues to be a bipartisan effort. That is the style both committees have worked in throughout the process.”

She added that “higher education is very much a shared priority for both parties. … I’m very much looking forward to the next two years. I’m glad to be at the Department of Education at this time.”

Few Changes on Education Panels

While Democrats made significant gains in the House by defeating at least 28 incumbents Nov. 7, their victories did not extend to the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Of the 24 Republican members of the panel seeking re-election, none appears to have lost his or her race.

But two Republicans on the House appropriations subcommittee that handles federal education funding lost their re-election bids. Reps. Anne M. Northup of Kentucky and Don Sherwood of Pennsylvania both lost to Democratic challengers.

Sen. Mike DeWine, a Republican, lost his seat to Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown in Ohio. Mr. DeWine is a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees education funding.

In a closely watched race that focused on the No Child Left Behind law more than most contests, incumbent Rep. Christopher Shays, a Republican, beat Diane Farrell, a Democrat, by 2 percentage points in Connnecticut’s 4th District. Ms. Farrell had repeatedly called the federal school law “too punitive”, although she stopped short of calling for its repeal. Mr. Shays continued to support the measure, but said he would favor more flexibility for states in assessing English-language learners and special education students during its reauthorization, scheduled for next year.

Mr. Shays is not a member a House panel that sets education policy or appropriations, but the race was profiled by Education Week this fall as one of three House contests in the state where Democratic challengers questioned their opponents’ support of the federal education law. ("No Child Left Behind on the Campaign Trail," Oct. 25, 2006.)

In another Connecticut race, current state senator Sen. Chris Murphy defeated Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, who supported the NCLB law and had pledged to continue to work with school officials on its implementation. On his campaign Web site, Mr. Murphy had called the law “a crippling unfunded mandate.”

In the closely watched Senate race in Connecticut, incumbent Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Democrat who lost the state’s primary and ran as an Independent, defeated the Democratic nominee, businessman Ned Lamont. The Republican candidate, Alan Schlesinger, was largely considered out of contention throughout the race.

During the campaign, Mr. Lieberman, who voted in favor of the school improvement law, said he would like to re-examine the student subgroups whose achievement is a key measure of progress under the law and possibly use methods in addition to standardized testing to gauge schools’ progress. Mr. Lamont attacked the law, telling local reporters that it is “irrelevant to what is going on in the classroom.” Still, he stopped short of calling for an outright repeal.

Vol. 26

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