School & District Management

GOP Senators in White House Race Could Complicate K-12 Debate

By Alyson Klein — April 20, 2015 6 min read
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Passing major education legislation is no easy task no matter what the political landscape looks like. But Congress’ work in rewriting the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year could get tangled in the Republicans’ 2016 presidential horse race, which so far features a crop of conservative senators whose views aren’t necessarily in lockstep with those of congressional education leaders.

The three declared presidential candidates in the U.S. Senate—Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Marco Rubio of Florida—have sought to scale back the federal role in K-12 education, even going far beyond the House and Senate bills for overhauling the current edition of the ESEA, the No Child Left Behind Act. Both those bills seek to return considerable control over schools to the state and local levels.

All three GOP lawmakers have supported legislation aimed at allowing states to opt out of most federal K-12 regulations. Sens. Cruz and Paul have publicly called, as well, for dismantling the U.S. Department of Education, while Sen. Rubio has advocated a regular review of the department’s programs. In a recent meeting with donors, Mr. Rubio also called for scrapping the Education Department altogether, according to published reports.

Presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a town hall event at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, earlier this month.

And both Sens. Cruz and Paul have backed legislation that would specifically prohibit the federal government from forcing or encouraging school districts to adopt certain standards or a specific curriculum, administer a particular assessment, or even mandate testing at all.

To be sure, Sen. Paul joined all of his colleagues on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee last week in supporting a bipartisan effort to rewrite the ESEA because he saw the bill as a clear improvement over current law, said Jillian Lane, his spokeswoman, in an email.

But, should the measure proceed to the floor, he’s looking forward to considering changes that would support school choice and further bolster state flexibility, she added.

Political Pressures

If any of the three is able to secure the nomination, or even stay in the race for a protracted period, his candidacy could move the Republican Party—and ultimately, perhaps the next administration—further to the right on K-12 issues.

Early Birds

Three current members of the U.S. Senate are the earliest official contenders for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination: Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Marco Rubio of Florida. When it comes to education, the three share a number of positions, including a distaste for the Common Core State Standards and a desire to expand school choice.

Here’s a look at their records and views on selected K-12 issues.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz: Co-sponsor of the “A-plus” Act, which would allow states to opt out of K-12 accountability altogether. Has called for abolishing the U.S. Department of Education and “repealing” the Common Core State Standards. Supported a bill that would prohibit the federal government from interfering with local decisionmaking on standards, curriculum, and assessments.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul: Supported legislation that would prohibit the federal government from interfering with local decisionmaking on standards, curriculum, and assessments. Teamed up with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., on a budget amendment that would have allowed Title I dollars to follow students to any school of their choice, even a private school. Has been outspoken in his criticism of the Common Core State Standards.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio: Has proposed federal tax credits for private schools and is a co-sponsor of Sen. Alexander’s sweeping school choice proposal, the “Scholarship for Kids” Act. Co-sponsor of the “A-plus” Act, which would allow states to opt-out of K-12 accountability. Has been critical of the Common Core State Standards.

Source: U.S. Congress, Education Week

“Fundamentally, they have the ability now to elevate conservative policy reforms,” including pushing for states to steer clear of any federal role in education and letting federal dollars be used for school choice, said Dan Holler, the communications director for Heritage Action for America, an advocacy organization for conservative ideas. “They don’t believe Washington is the solution and that politicians need to maintain this vestige of control over what states are doing” in education.

But lending further support to either the House or Senate effort to renew the ESEA—last rewritten by Congress in 2001 under the No Child Left Behind label—could be politically dicey for the trio, even though both bills were crafted by Republican chairmen of the two education committees: Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Rep. John Kline of Minnesota.

Both current measures would significantly scale back the federal role in K-12 policy, but both would also keep the NCLB law’s annual testing schedule in place.

While the power of the U.S. secretary of education would be significantly diminished under both bills, neither goes so far as getting rid of the Education Department.

“No matter how good conservative wonks think [the Senate bill is] for guys running to the right, to go out there and explain why they voted for a federal education bill that keeps testing and expands the federal role in prekindergarten,” as the Senate’s bill would, “could be problematic,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.

“Guys who might have been wooed by Alexander” if an election wasn’t around the corner, “will be harder to woo” because they won’t want to be outflanked by others in the field, said Mr. Hess, who also writes an opinion blog for Education Week.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., discusses his tax reform plan on April 15 at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

On the other hand, he said, candidates may be spending their time and energy in early primary states and not have the bandwidth to get actively engaged in the debate over the proposed ESEA rewrite legislation.

Common-Core Critics

The three Republican senators running for president share other education priorities, including opposition to the Common Core State Standards, support for beefing up local control, and advocacy for efforts to expand school choice.

Sens. Cruz and Paul have shunned the common core. Mr. Cruz has pledged to “repeal” the standards, which were developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association and are not enshrined in federal law. And Mr. Paul has tweaked his presidential rivals for supporting the standards, particularly former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is actively exploring a presidential bid but has not formally declared his candidacy. By contrast, Sen. Rubio has been relatively low-key in his criticism of the common core. Still, it was considered a big deal when, in 2013, Mr. Rubio told the Tampa Bay Times: “This effort to coerce states into adhering to national curriculum standards is not the best way to help our children attain the best education.”

That statement put Sen. Rubio at odds with Mr. Bush, even though the two shared a close working relationship in Florida.

Like Mr. Bush, who sought to expand the use of tuition vouchers in Florida, the three senators have promoted school choice.

Mr. Paul, for instance, filed an amendment to the Senate ESEA rewrite that would have allowed Title I dollars for disadvantaged children to follow students to the public or private schools of their choice. The committee did not vote on the provision, but a similar one could come up during floor debate.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., announces the start of his presidential campaign on April 7 in Louisville, Ky.

Mr. Rubio, meanwhile, has proposed federal tax credits for private school tuition and is a co-sponsor of Sen. Alexander’s sweeping school choice proposal, the “Scholarship for Kids” Act, which would allow states to significantly expand school choice programs using federal funds.

Mr. Rubio, however, has at times taken a bipartisan approach to education legislation, especially when it comes to college access. For instance, he collaborated with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., on legislation to increase the quality of higher education data, so that students could make more informed college choices. Sens. Cruz, Paul, and Rubio may not be the only members of Congress who join a crowded GOP primary field. At least one other senator, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, is said to be mulling a presidential run.

Last year, Sen. Graham introduced one of the first pieces of legislation taking aim at the Obama administration’s role in championing the common-core standards.

Echoes of 2008

This isn’t the first time Congress has tried to renew the ESEA as a presidential campaign was heating up.

During the 2008 primary season, there were three Democratic candidates on the Senate education committee—then-Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, and Barack Obama of Illinois—and each had his or her own priorities and interests.

Senators from the Republican side of the aisle were also seeking the White House that year, including the eventual nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

The 2008 campaign was seen as one of the stumbling blocks that helped keep an ESEA reauthorization from moving forward at the time.

Ultimately, the challenge for this cycle’s candidates will be to spellout how their policies would make a difference in the one area that really matters to most voters, boosting student achievement, said David Winston, the president of the Winston Group, a Washington polling firm that works for Republican candidates.

“They’ve articulated some broad principles, but how that applies to policies is something that we’ll see develop,” he said of the GOP candidates. “What you are beginning to see is concern by people in this country that people in other countries are outperforming our students. … A broad swath of the electorate [will say] let’s talk about student outcomes.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 2015 edition of Education Week as Trio in Race for White House May Complicate K-12 Debate

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