Hemmed in by a Republican-controlled Congress and President Donald Trump, the top Democrats in the Senate and House have been working to parry GOP advances in general. But when it comes to education, could Democrats cut deals with Trump on at least a few issues?
The two parties have shown some willingness to find common ground in other areas. Prime example: the deal Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi struck with Trump last month to raise the debt ceiling and keep the federal government running through the rest of 2017.
The move stunned GOP leadership. But if Trump is willing to work publicly in that way with leaders of a party he frequently blasts, are there any deals to be had on education and education-related issues?
Based on conversations with some in the K-12 world, along with news developments, here are a few areas where there could be enough common ground, in theory, for Democrats to strike some kind of deal with Trump:
• The Dream Act, to protect those now covered by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides protections for those brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
• Early child care, specifically expanding benefits for child-care costs. Trump’s daughter and adviser, Ivanka Trump, has expressed interest in the issue.
• Anti-bullying protections. First lady Melania Trump has expressed an interest in the issue.
• Issues related to higher education like Pell Grants, but not necessarily reauthorizing the Higher Education Act itself.
For several of those issues, Democrats have introduced relevant legislation, and a few have Republican co-authors.
Room to ‘Agree’
At least in principle, some top Democrats voice a willingness to offer an olive branch.
“At a time when many people across the country are still struggling, Republicans and Democrats in Congress should work together to find solutions that strengthen the middle class and help students, parents, and [college loan] borrowers get ahead,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, said in a statement. “I believe there’s a lot we should be able to agree on, including addressing the rising costs of high-quality child care and a comprehensive approach to making college more affordable, accessible, and accountable.”
A deal on higher education, a relatively high-profile education issue, might be close to impossible, especially since U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has riled Democrats for her shift away from the Obama administration’s work on college loans and student debt, as well as revoking Obama-era guidance on Title IX.
Still, some kind of accord on the Dream Act is likely the Democrats’ best bet to work with Trump and other Republicans, said Charles Barone, the policy director at Democrats for Education Reform. Barone said there’s even a decent chance a deal on the Dream Act and DACA could be reached before Christmas. (Congress has about five months until Trump has said he will end DACA protections. Trump has also said he wants to protect “dreamers” without specifying how.)
“There are opportunities to work across the aisle where there wouldn’t be a reason to prevent Democrats from seeing what those opportunities might be,” said Barone, a one-time staffer to former Rep. George Miller of California and the late Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, both Democrats. “I don’t think saying ‘We’re not going to work with this guy on anything’ is especially productive.”
Issues dealing with revenue, including school infrastructure spending and expanded child-care benefits, might be harder, even though Trump has expressed general interest in infrastructure spending. And bullying prevention is also a focus for Democrats in education. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., has introduced a bill several times designed to crack down on bullying in schools, the Safe School Improvement Act. California Democratic Rep. Linda Sanchez has also introduced an anti-bullying bill this Congress. However, both bills deal with gender identity and sexual orientation, which are touchy topics in today’s Washington.
Barone noted that additional spending on things like K-12 infrastructure might take months to work out. At the same time, Barone pointed out that the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, a stalwart liberal, worked with Republican colleagues to establish the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in the mid-1990s, after Republicans took control of Congress in the 1994 elections. “The Clinton people didn’t think that was feasible at all,” Barone said. “But Kennedy pursued it. And it was a big win.”
There’s a decent chance lawmakers could slip some kind of expanded child-care benefit into the GOP’s bigger tax-reform package, said Vic Klatt, a former House GOP education staffer who now works at the Penn Hill Group lobbying firm. In addition, the Senate could always pick up the bipartisan bill to overhaul the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which the House approved over the summer, Klatt said. Some sort of deal involving Pell Grants for those in the workforce could move through Congress. And at least some Democrats, along with Trump, would be pleased with increases for federal charter school grants.
But anyone who thinks that the Dream Act, school infrastructure spending, or any other education-related compromise will be easy for Democrats to hammer out with Trump and the GOP is mistaken, Klatt noted. For example, while Klatt said he thinks some version of the Dream Act will pass, “It’s not going to be easy. And there’s going to be a lot of blood on the floor” before the end, especially in a House GOP caucus divided on the issue.
The recent collapse of the GOP’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act could help matters, said Alice Johnson Cain, the executive vice president of Teach Plus, which helps teachers take leadership roles in shaping education policy.
“I think it would have been next to impossible for any of this if that had passed, in terms of the climate and the tone,” said Cain, who was, like Barone, an education staffer at one time for Miller.
Tone and Experience
Of course, the ACA repeal effort could very well come back in fiscal 2018, squelching any sort of dealmaking spirit. Addressing the debt ceiling was essentially a must-do item on Washington’s priority list, making it potentially different than other policy issues. And Democrats don’t control either the House or Senate, reducing their leverage.
Finding the right vehicle is also key, especially when there are sharp partisan divisions over the budget, Cain said. For example, even though she and her organization are hopeful about teacher-preparation issues being addressed, she said proposals by Trump and House Republicans to eliminate $2 billion in Title II aid for teacher preparation—and the subsequent outcry from teacher and other education groups—"does make it harder” to address those policy issues.
Ultimately, Cain said, what could get these sorts of tricky political deals done are “the long-standing relationships, and to some degree friendships, between staffers” with a lot of experience.
“There are a lot of tactical ways to do it, once people get together and say, ‘This is what we want,’ ” she said. “When I talk to my former colleagues [on Capitol Hill] now, I find myself saying, ‘Thank you. Thank you for sticking it out ... in these very difficult times.’ ”
A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2017 edition of Education Week as Could Democrats, Trump Team Up on K-12 Issues?