School & District Management

Congress’ Shift to Right May Be Felt in Schools

By Michelle R. Davis & Erik W. Robelen — November 09, 2004 4 min read
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Republicans expanded their margin in Congress from a sliver to a slice in last week’s elections, and significantly bolstered the conservative profile on Capitol Hill.

The GOP’s gains in the Senate and the House of Representatives could pave the way for some sharply contested education proposals, such as an expansion of private school vouchers, and discourage major legislative challenges to the No Child Left Behind Act.

The tilt to the right is most evident in the Senate, where four Democrats from the South were all replaced with Republicans who are more conservative than some of their fellow party members.

“We’ve lost moderate Democrats, and you’re replacing them with pretty conservative Republicans,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, the director of education policy at the Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute, which espouses a moderate Democratic philosophy. “This election is going to change the character of that body.”

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.

No changes took place among House and Senate education leaders, but the election results included highs and lows for candidates with connections to education policy.

Two candidates with experience as state schools chiefs who had sought Senate seats were defeated. In South Carolina, state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum, a Democrat, was defeated by Republican Rep. Jim DeMint. In Florida, Betty Castor, a Democratic former education commissioner, lost narrowly to Republican Mel Martinez, a former U.S. secretary of housing and urban development under President Bush.

In New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District, Democrat Richard M. Romero, a former teacher and administrator who is now the president pro tem of the state Senate, lost to the Republican incumbent, Rep. Heather A. Wilson. The No Child Left Behind Act was an issue in their race. (“School Law an Issue in U.S. House Race,” Oct. 27, 2004.)

The GOP increased its numbers in the Senate by four, gaining a 55-44 majority over the Democrats, with one Independent who typically votes with the minority. The biggest upset was the defeat of Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Senate minority leader, who was dethroned by John Thune, a former Republican congressman.

In the House, Republicans picked up at least four seats, giving them a 228-206 majority, with one Independent who votes with the Democrats and one undecided race.

Confidence in the Agenda

Rep. Max Burns, a Georgia Republican and member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, was defeated by Democrat John Barrow, making him the only incumbent member of the House or Senate education committees who ran for re-election and lost.

Several House panel members left to retire or to run for higher office. The only Senate education panelist not returning is Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who opted to run for the Democratic presidential nomination rather than seek a second Senate term.

A serious challenge to a prominent incumbent fell short. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee on education, beat back Democratic Rep. Joseph M. Hoeffel.

Rep. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican and House education committee member, won a Senate seat against a fellow committee member, Democratic Rep. Denise L. Majette. For Mr. Isakson, who helped write the No Child Left Behind Act, the larger Republican majority means the law will get time to work.

“When we reform education every six years, you lose consistency,” the senator-elect said.in an interview. The election results, he said, “bode well for staying the course on No Child Left Behind.”

The most immediate impact of the elections could be a flurry of legislative activity as stalled education bills start to move forward.

“The logjam will be broken,” said Vic Klatt, a Washington lobbyist and former top aide to House Republicans on education.

The overdue reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Act is expected to pass either during a lame-duck session this year or early in the new Congress.

School Voucher Expansion?

Several other education measures may also see action in the 109th Congress, such as reauthorization bills for higher education, vocational education, and the Head Start program.

The new Congress could also see legislation to expand support for private school vouchers beyond a District of Columbia pilot program enacted earlier this year. The stronger Republican majorities could make such an expansion easier to pass, though moderates in the party may object.

But conservative Republicans could have an unanticipated effect when it comes to President Bush’s campaign proposals, which include extending accountability measures to high school, said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which generally supports the No Child Left Behind Act.

“Conservative Republicans worried about federal control,” said Mr. Finn, who was an assistant education secretary under President Reagan, “may not cotton to the Bush idea of extending No Child Left Behind to the high school level.”

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