After easily capturing the number of seats they needed take control of the U.S. Senate—and padding their majority in the House of Representatives—congressional Republicans have laid out an aggressive education policy agenda that includes overhauling the long-stalled No Child Left Behind law and the mammoth Higher Education Act.
While divided government will remain, as the White House is in Democratic hands at least until President Barack Obama finishes his second term, the new political calculation in Congress will likely spur movement on education bills. Lawmakers who play major roles on the chamber’s education committees were quick to outline their priorities, which also include school choice measures, funding issues, and generally scaling back the federal footprint on K-12.
Thanks to wins in Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, and South Dakota—all tight and expensive races that in the end went to Republican candidates—the GOP garnered enough seats to take leadership of the Senate. Democrats currently hold the Senate with 53 seats to Republicans’ 45 (plus two independents who are aligned with the Democrats), but in the next Congress, Republicans will control at least 52 seats.
In the House, Republicans extended their majority from 234 to at least 243. (At the time this article went to press, some races in both chambers had not been decided.)
The flip in the Senate will result in a reconfiguring of key leadership positions.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former U.S. secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, is slated to take the reins of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. The Tennessee Republican and former governor is known as a pragmatic politician, fond of working across the aisle. He’ll likely be collaborating with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who is expected to leave her post on the Budget Committee for the top Democratic slot on the HELP Committee as the current chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, retires at the end of the year.
At the helm of the House Education and the Workforce Committee will be a familiar face, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who easily recaptured his seat, even after being targeted by liberal HBO personality Bill Maher’s “flip a district” effort. With the departure of Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the committee, who is retiring at the end of the year, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., is expected to fill the slot of the ranking member.
Rep. Kline has ushered two different versions of an overhaul of the NCLB law—the current edition of the nearly 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act—through the House as committee chairman during the last two Congresses.
“I’ve been trying and trying to get No Child Left Behind replaced, … and now I’m much more optimistic,” he said in an interview. “I’m looking at every way to get it done. It’s the most important [education priority] because states are struggling with the temporary-waiver system set up by the administration. We need to change the law.”
Rep. Kline’s efforts to rewrite the law include two similar proposals structured differently—a piecemeal overhaul and a large, broader bill. Under both proposals, states would still have to test students, but they wouldn’t have to set goals for student achievement. In addition, they wouldn’t have to intervene in schools that aren’t making progress with particular subgroups of students, such as minorities or those with disabilities.
Rep. Kline said he expects to work closely with Sen. Alexander.
Meanwhile, Sen. Alexander will likely pick up where he left off on the NCLB law, with a bill he introduced last year that garnered support from every committee Republican but didn’t get a single Democratic co-sponsor.
The measure, which is similar to Mr. Kline’s, would significantly scale back the federal role in K-12 policy. Among other provisions, it would allow states to devise their own accountability plans and eliminate the federal role in requiring states to set specific student-achievement goals, or in identifying a certain percentage of schools as low-performing.
Schools would still be required to test students in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school, as the law currently requires, and report the results, including for subgroups of students.
Sen. Murray, who is known for being one of the Democrats’ strongest negotiators, will have an extra incentive to work with Sen. Alexander to overhaul the law: The U.S. Department of Education recently yanked her home state of Washington’s NCLB waiver, sending it on a messy transition back to the law’s outdated accountability system.
“She knows how to cut a good deal,” said a Senate GOP aide, adding that the committee under Mr. Alexander’s stewardship “will always be an inclusive process.”
Both chambers have made baby steps toward reauthorizing the Higher Education Act this year.
Rep. Kline has helped pushed three bills through the House with bipartisan backing—one that would increase financial-aid counseling, another that would simplify the amount of financial forecasting families received for estimated college costs, and another that would allow colleges to test competency-based degree programs.
Sen. Alexander, meanwhile, has teamed up with Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., to offer a more comprehensive proposal involving, among other things, the Pell Grant program, student-aid applications, financial-aid counseling, and loan-repayment options.
“He wants to simplify [the law] and so do I,” Mr. Kline said of Mr. Alexander. “The reason you take a piecemeal approach is so people can understand what you’re doing—both the House and Senate and the larger public; it doesn’t mean it has to [be structured] that way.”
Other Education Issues
Conservatives will almost certainly use the budget process to try to eliminate the Obama administration’s favorite competitive-grant programs, such as Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, and the expanded School Improvement Grant program. GOP lawmakers in the House have tried for the past few years to scrap those programs, but Senate Democrats have always championed them in budget negotiations.
Sen. Alexander is especially a critic of both Race to the Top and the NCLB waivers—he is fond of saying they’ve turned the federal Department of Education into a “national school board” and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan into a “waiver-granting czar.”
Meanwhile, school choice policies have become signature issues for a number of high-profile Republican senators widely seen as having presidential aspirations, including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, both of whom have written or co-sponsored school choice bills.
Sen. Alexander also has a school choice proposal, which would allow states to take almost all of their federal K-12 funds and combine them into one giant block grant aimed at creating scholarships for low-income students that could be used at any school, private or public.
Rep. Kline is less inclined to support a voucher program and more interested in passing a bill that would replicate high-quality charter schools. Such a bill would be similar to a measure he ushered through the House last year.
“Parents need more options and choice, and public charter schools offer that, without the controversy that comes with vouchers for private schools,” Mr. Kline said.
Will Republicans Produce?
Luckily for the House committee chairman, Sen. Alexander has worked with Democrats—including Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, whose 2014 race was punted to a December runoff—on a bill to revamp the federal charter-school-grant program.
Some political watchers aren’t convinced Republicans are motivated to legislate, but the House and Senate education leaders—along with the Senate Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky—have shot back at those concerns.
“Mission number-one is to get results,” said the GOP Senate aide. “We are not going to do a bunch of chest-thumping pieces of legislation that make us feel good about ourselves.”
Rep. Kline agreed: “I think we’ll get more votes on the Senate floor. I expect that out of Mitch McConnell and Lamar Alexander, and that will be a good thing.”
At the very least, Rep. Kline said, he has “great confidence” Congress will move forward on an NCLB overhaul and the higher education reauthorization.
“And then it will be up to the president to decide what he’s going to do about it,” he added.
President Obama, for his part, seemed to be open to working across the aisle, particularly with regard to education issues.
“I was encouraged that this year Republicans agreed to investments that expanded early-childhood education. I think we’ve got a chance to do more on that front,” he said during a post-election press conference Nov. 5. “We’ve got some common ideas to help more young people afford college and graduate without crippling debt.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2014 edition of Education Week as GOP Leaders in Congress Outline Education Priorities