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School & District Management

Insiders Ask: Can K-12 Dodge Congressional Gridlock?

By Alyson Klein — November 05, 2010 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 8 min read
Sen.-elect Rand Paul, R-Ky. awaits an interview in Bowling Green, Ky., on Nov. 3. The Republican wants to scrap the U.S. Department of Education.

Corrected: Due to a typographical error, an earlier version of this story had an incorrect number for the gain of Republican members in the House. At the time of publication, Republicans had picked up at least 60 seats.

Now that Republicans have taken control of the U.S. House of Representatives and bolstered their minority in the U.S. Senate, it remains to be seen if education is one area of federal policy that can avoid the partisan stalemate that many observers predict will paralyze Washington for the next two years.

Republicans and Democrats famously came together to pass the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. That law, the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, placed new accountability demands on schools and authorized more federal spending on education. Its renewal has been pending since 2007.

In his postelection news conference, President Barack Obama cited education as one of a handful of areas for possible cooperation.

“I think everybody in this country thinks that we’ve got to make sure our kids are equipped in terms of their education, their science background, their math backgrounds, to compete in this new global economy,” Mr. Obama told reporters Nov. 3, the day after the midterm elections. “And that’s going to be an area where I think there’s potential common ground.”

But longtime Capitol Hill insiders are divided on whether the new Congress can replicate that spirit of bipartisanship on ESEA reauthorization and other K-12 priorities.

News articles that say education is an issue that can easily garner bipartisan support “are almost always written by people who don’t get involved in the details of education,” said Vic Klatt, a former longtime aide to Republicans on the House education committee, who is now a lobbyist with Van Scoyoc Associates in Washington. “Many of the issues at the forefront of the discussion have never been vetted by Congress.”

Others stress that education policy doesn’t always divide along party lines.

“The fault lines are those who are really pushing fundamental, transformational change, and those who are more comfortable with incremental change in our schools,” said Alice Johnson Cain, a former education aide to Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the current chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, who is now in line to become the ranking Democrat.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., hugs his wife, Susan Daggett, at Denver’s City Park, where he gave his victory speech the day after being declared the winner in his tight electoral race.

Under the Republican majority, Rep. John Kline of Minnesota is expected to become the chairman of the panel. Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming is the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

With one race still to be called as of late last week, the GOP had picked up at least six seats in the Senate. That put the chamber’s split at 51 Democrats and 46 Republicans, with two Independents who typically caucus with the Democrats. Republicans held at least 239 seats in the House, a gain of at least 60 members. Nine House races were still undecided.

Fewer Federal Dollars

It seems certain that the new, Republican-controlled House will reject major new education spending. In a “Pledge to America” outlining their governance plan that was released in September, House GOP leaders said they would like to return federal spending to fiscal 2008 levels, before Congress approved the Troubled Asset Relief Program, a rescue package for the financial sector, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic-stimulus bill.

But the lack of new funding is going to be a tough sell for Democrats still in Congress, many of whom skew liberal, said Danica L. Petroshius, a former aide to the late Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. She spoke at a Nov. 4 forum sponsored by the Coalition for College and Career Ready America, which is composed of business, civil rights, and philanthropic groups.

Ms. Petroshius, who is now the chief executive officer of Policy Strategies and Solutions, a consulting firm in Washington, said that federal leaders are facing an “incredible challenge with such tight fiscal constraints and massive policy change. ... The notion [for some Democrats] of doing more with less is going to be very difficult to swallow.”

Ms. Cain, the former aide to Rep. Miller, who worked for the House education panel both when Democrats were in the majority and when they were in the minority, said that there typically is a spirit of cooperation on K-12 issues, no matter which party is in charge.

“The groundwork is there for that to continue,” said Ms. Cain, who is now the education director of the Los Angeles-based Hope Street Group, a national, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of entrepreneurs, business leaders, and other professionals that works to promote economic opportunity.

Mr. Klatt said that the new Congress could take a closer look at some prominent education initiatives that were fast-tracked early in the Obama administration. Among them: federal incentives for states to adopt more uniform, rigorous academic standards; the $4 billion in competitive grants given to states under the Race to the Top program; and a new emphasis on student data systems.

Those policies were passed quickly in 2009 as part of the recovery act, which provided some $100 billion for education. The education portion helped the Obama administration advance its K-12 priorities, even without an ESEA reauthorization.

A strengthened Republican presence in Congress is likely, meanwhile, to have its own ideas for rewriting the ESEA. Those are almost certain to include a move toward less federal involvement in education policy—nearly every Republican campaigned on greater local control in education.

Some successful candidates backed by the fiscally conservative tea-party movement have even gone a step farther, calling for completely eliminating the U.S. Department of Education. They include Republican Rand Paul, who won an open Senate seat from Kentucky.

It’s unclear what impact the new swath of tea-party-backed members will have on the debate, and whether those members will seek or be able to find common ground with teachers’ unions, which typically line up with Democrats, but also have concerns about certain federal mandates in education.

“If it amounts to getting rid of some of the onerous federal intrusion and micromanagement of schools, we’re for that,” said Kim Anderson, the director of government relations for the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, which led a lawsuit challenging aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act. “If it means [Republicans] adopt a position of no federal role in education, ... we’d oppose that. We just don’t know.”

New Leaders

Mr. Klatt, the former GOP aide, said lawmakers may be able to pass a more limited ESEA reauthorization bill that encompasses only areas of broad agreement, an idea put forth last year by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the ranking minority member of the Senate subcommittee that oversees K-12 education.

Even though Republicans fell short of taking over the Senate, the beefed-up GOP margins in both chambers are likely to boost the role that Sen. Alexander will play in a reauthorization.

“Senator Alexander will be one of the most important keys,” Mr. Klatt said. “He knows the issues better than anyone, he’s a leader in the Senate, and he has a good relationship with the Obama administration on education, and likes” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Republican Rep. John Kline, the likely new head of the House education committee, speaks to supporters after winning his fifth term representing part of southeastern Minnesota.

Mr. Alexander—himself a former education secretary under President George H.W. Bush—has called the current secretary Mr. Obama’s best Cabinet pick.

The man expected to become the new speaker of the House, Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, also has a record of working across the aisle on education. As the chairman of the House education committee in 2001, Rep. Boehner worked closely with Rep. Miller to shepherd the NCLB law through the House.

In a statement released after the Nov. 2 elections, Rep. Kline said he wants to conduct “robust oversight of education and workforce programs across the federal government.” Such oversight could include an examination of the education spending in the recovery act.

Rep. Kline said he wants to “pursue education reform that restores local control, empowers parents, lets teachers teach, and protects taxpayers.”

But he made no mention of the ESEA reauthorization—a possible sign that the new Republican majority is trying to figure out how to proceed on the issue.

In an interview with Education Week earlier this fall, Rep. Kline said he was skeptical of the Obama administration’s $350 million program aimed at helping states develop common student assessments, part of the overall Race to the Top program. He said he wants to ensure that the initiative doesn’t lead to the Education Department’s involvement in creating the tests.

The administration also asked for $1.35 billion in the fiscal 2011 federal budget to continue the Race to the Top for an additional year and extend it to school districts. Rep. Kline said in the interview that he wouldn’t support such an extension and said he thinks the program is too rigid and imposes federal policy preferences on states.

But there are also issues on which Mr. Kline says he sees eye to eye with the administration, such as encouraging the proliferation of high-quality charter schools.

Some Democratic incumbents who have sought to influence K-12 policy—including some who had opposed expansive federal initiatives—lost their seats on Nov. 2.

Among them was Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who was defeated by businessman Ron Johnson. Sen. Feingold was one of just a handful of lawmakers to vote against the NCLB law.

But Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., a former Denver schools chief and a key ally of the Obama administration on education issues, prevailed in his contest with Republican Ken Buck, a lawyer with tea-party backing who had been among the candidates seeking to scrap the federal Education Department.

Democrats also prevailed in Connecticut, where state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who sued the federal government over the NCLB law, defeated former World Wrestling Entertainment chief executive Linda McMahon for an open Senate seat.

A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Comity in Congress Could Prove Elusive

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