No matter which party comes out ahead in the Nov. 4 congressional elections, the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee will have a new leader. Should Republicans take control of the chamber, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., currently the ranking member on the education panel, will take the reins and has openly discussed his priorities for the committee. Should Democrats maintain their majority, political observers, education policy experts, and Senate aides widely expect Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to succeed retiring Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa—though Sen. Murray, who now chairs the Budget Committee, has been adamant about not projecting her future moves.
Here’s a look at the education credentials and priorities of the two most likely candidates to head up the Senate education committee in the 114th Congress:
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
Sen. Lamar Alexander has been a fixture of conservative politics and education policy for nearly four decades, consistently leading his party on education issues since his election to the Senate in 2002 and most recently using his bully pulpit to slam the Obama administration for what he considers federal overreach.
When he was elected to the first of two terms as Tennessee governor in 1979—gaining national attention after traversing the state on foot in his now trademark red-and-black-plaid shirt—the Republican set out to overhaul the Volunteer State’s teacher profession.
The measure, which finally passed in 1984, fundamentally altered the teaching profession in the state’s public schools. It instituted teacher-evaluation and differentiated-pay systems and created “career ladders” for teachers—policies some states are just now beginning to implement and others have yet to tackle.
The legislative push established Sen. Alexander as a foe of teachers’ unions. But in 2013, his Senate office teamed up with the unions during a committee markup to overhaul the No Child Left Behind Act: They worked to defeat language that would have required states to adopt new teacher evaluations and lobbied to include language that would alter acceptable school turnaround models.
Defining the Federal Role
It was also during his governorship that Sen. Alexander developed his “grand bargain” theory, a proposal that calls for the federal government to assume all financial responsibility for states’ Medicaid health-care programs in exchange for states financing all education programs. He recently dusted off the proposal when Congress reset federal student-loan interest rates in summer 2013, arguing that skyrocketing college costs are a direct result of states siphoning funds from higher education programs because of increased Medicaid costs.
After his eight-year tenure as governor, Sen. Alexander headed up Tennessee’s state university system before joining former President George H.W. Bush’s Cabinet as education secretary in 1991. During that time, he focused largely on school choice issues—he proposed a controversial program that would have given parents federal funds to help pay tuition at private schools—workforce-training programs, and adult education. He also backed a policy that declared most scholarships based on race to be illegal.
It wasn’t until after pursuing two failed presidential bids, in 1996 and 2000, that Sen. Alexander was elected to the Senate and set out to put his broad education experience to use in the legislative arena.
He rose quickly in the ranks of his party, assuming the No. 3 leadership position as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference by 2008. But as the political arena became increasingly partisan, Sen. Alexander, widely known for being a pragmatic legislator, resigned from the GOP steering team.
“Stepping down will liberate me to work for results on the issues I care the most about,” he said at the time. “I want to do more to make the Senate a more effective institution so that it can deal better with serious issues.”
In that vein, Sen. Alexander worked with retiring Senate education committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to clear several bipartisan bills through the committee, including the mammoth overhaul of the NCLB law, which he didn’t fully support but said deserved to be brought to the Senate floor for a full debate.
Earlier this summer, he worked with Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, to craft a higher education proposal that would simplify the federal student-aid application, restore the year-round Pell Grant tuition-assistance program, and overhaul student-loan offerings.
An Alexander-led education committee likely would prioritize the reauthorizations of the NCLB law and the Higher Education Act, while also focusing on limiting the impact of the federal government on education, something he considers, above all else, a local and state responsibility.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Although Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., spends most of her time on fiscal issues as chairwoman of the powerful Senate Budget Committee, education jump-started her entire political career.
“Education is what got me into politics in the first place,” she said in September at the Committee for Education Funding’s annual gala in Washington. “And it’s an issue that has driven me ever since.”
As she tells her now famous “mom in tennis shoes” story: When her children were little, she drove 100 miles to the state capital in Olympia, where she demanded lawmakers reinstate budget cuts slated to close their preschool.
“One state legislator said, ‘You know that’s really nice, but you can’t make a difference, you’re just a mom in tennis shoes,’ ” Sen. Murray recalled.
Sen. Murray organized a grassroots effort, and eventually the legislature reinstated the funding. That experience led her to become a preschool teacher and later propelled her to serve six years on the Shoreline school board before running and winning a seat in the Washington state Senate in 1988.
Rising Through the Ranks
When she ran for U.S. Senate four years later, she was widely expected to lose, dwarfed by candidates with more political experience, better name recognition, and heaps of cash. Instead, she bested her closest opponent by 10 points and has since risen through the ranks over the course of four terms.
She twice chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a role for which she’s largely credited with ushering in a new wave of Democrats to the chamber. Sen. Murray now holds the powerful No. 4 leadership position of conference secretary and is often called on by her caucus to represent Democrats in high-profile fiscal negotiations.
Indeed, in 2011, Sen. Murray co-chaired the “supercommittee,” the panel charged with reducing the deficit by $1 trillion over a decade, alongside Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas. The deficit-reduction effort ultimately failed and set in motion across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.
She later steered a fiscal 2014 budget through the chamber, marking the first time the Senate had passed a budget in four years. The final budget, brokered with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., set funding through fiscal 2015 and, among other things, replaced nearly two-thirds of the sequestration cuts to education.
Those not familiar with Sen. Murray’s personal history may find it difficult to understand why she would consider relinquishing control of one prestigious committee in exchange for jurisdiction over a variety of social issues. But her entire upbringing, she often points out, showcases the importance of safety-net programs and other federal benefits.
Her father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was 15. While veterans’ health benefits paid some of the medical bills, her family relied on food stamps for a period of time while her mother, who had been a homemaker her entire life, used federal aid to go back to school in order to get a decent-paying job.
Later in life, Sen. Murray and her six brothers and sisters used Pell Grants and other federal tuition-assistance programs to go to college.
Those experiences guided her unique steering of the Budget Committee, in which she frequently invited “ordinary people"—teachers, students, nurses—to testify as witnesses rather than the typical inside-the-Beltway number crunchers.
“I made it a priority to have witnesses at our hearings who could put a face to the issue,” Ms. Murray said at the CEF gala.
If Sen. Murray takes the reins of the Senate education committee, expect her to continue the efforts of retiring Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to overhaul the No Child Left Behind Act, and to reauthorize the Higher Education Act—though a push to pass early-childhood education legislation could trump both of those.
A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 2014 edition of Education Week as Likely Leadership Options for Senate Education Panel