School & District Management

No Matter Who Wins, Congress Faces Rocky Path on Ed. Issues

By Alyson Klein — October 09, 2012 6 min read
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No matter who wins the congressional and presidential elections next month, lawmakers will return to Washington in November to sort out a tangle of tricky budgetary issues—and will face a legislative logjam that includes almost every major law that touches on education.

Fiscal concerns are almost certain to take center stage, both during a lame-duck session to be held right after the election, and come January, after the new Congress is sworn in. In addition to figuring out how—and whether—to head off “sequestration,” a series of planned, across-the-board cuts, which the White House Office of Management and Budget projects says would mean an 8.2 percent reduction to most programs in the U.S. Department of Education, lawmakers must make big decisions about a whole host of other long-term budget and tax issues.

The debate over those thorny questions is likely to consume the bulk of lawmakers’ energy, and some observers say that could push the long-delayed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to the back burner for a year or more.

“If everything is the same going into next year, with control of the House, Senate, and the White House, we’re in for a long, drawn-out year of what tax cuts do we reinstate, what parts of the sequester happen or don’t happen,” said Jason Delisle, a former aide to Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee, who now serves as the director of the federal education budget project at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington. “We’ve been in this mess for a year now, and if we wake up after the election and nothing has changed,” he said, it’s going to become clear to lawmakers that “there’s no easy way out.”

Handicapping the Split

For now, it appears that the makeup of Congress is likely to stay relatively constant. Political prognosticators see little chance that Democrats will take over the U.S. House of Representatives, which flipped to Republican control in 2010.

As for the Senate, the chamber includes 51 Democrats and 47 Republicans, plus two Independents who caucus with the Democrats.


Although education hasn’t been a major issue in the battle over Congress, some candidates in contested races have a strong connection to K-12. Some of these races could have implications for education policy no matter how the overall control of the House and Senate turn out.

U.S. House of Representatives

Republican Incumbent: U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, a longtime member of the House education panel, has bucked her party on issues including private school vouchers. Rep. Biggert has been endorsed by the National Education Association, which is generally known for its support of Democratic candidates.

Democratic Challenger: Former U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, who served in the House from March 2008 to January 2011, is touting his support for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which he said helped save thousands of teachers’ jobs. Rep. Biggert voted against the stimulus law.

Republican Incumbent: U.S. Rep. John Kline, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, is the author of the House education panel’s bills to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. His legislation would significantly scale back the federal role in accountability and require districts to craft teacher-evaluation systems that take student achievement into account. Rep. Kline has also supported bills that would eliminate more than 40 federal education programs, and give school districts considerably more flexibility over K-12 spending.

Democratic Challenger: Mike Obermueller, a lawyer and former state legislator, has criticized Mr. Kline for not completing the renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act and for his handling of college-access issues, including student loans.

U.S. Senate

Hawaii (Open Seat)
Democratic Candidate: U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono has made early-childhood education a major focus of her tenure on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. She introduced a bill in 2007 that would authorize funding to improve early-learning programs. And earlier this year, she helped lead an effort to prod the Education Department to offer a second round of Race to the Top grants for early-childhood programs.

Republican Candidate: Former Gov. Linda Lingle served as the state’s chief executive when Hawaii surprised analysts by winning a $75 million Race to the Top grant. Ms. Lingle is critical of the state’s current leadership on Race to the Top, which she says has jeopardized the grant. If elected, she has pledged to embrace merit pay and new teacher-evaluation programs, as well as push for expanded charter schools and a focus on science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education.

Democratic Incumbent: U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is a former elementary teacher who points to his support for establishing an office of rural education at the U.S. Department of Education. He’s also noted his votes in favor of bolstering Pell Grants to help disadvantaged college students and getting subsidized lenders out of the student-lending program.

Republican Challenger: U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg currently serves as the chairman of the House panel that oversees K-12 spending. He has sought to eliminate competitive-grant programs at the center of President Barack Obama’s education redesign agenda, including Race to the Top, the Investing in Innovation grant program, and the School Improvement Grant program. He’s also boosted funding for Head Start, which helps low-income children attend early-childhood programs.

Wisconsin(Open Seat)
Democratic Candidate: U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin has pointed to her support for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, as well as her championship of changes to the student-lending program that she says helped expand access for low-income students.

Republican Candidate: Former Gov. Tommy Thompson amassed a significant record on education policy when he served as the state’s chief executive in the 1990s, working to tamp down teacher pay and pushing for a voucher program. And, with former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, he served as co-chairman of the Aspen Institute’s Commission on the No Child Left Behind Act. The panel’s 2007 report called for voluntary national standards and tests as well as teacher evaluation based in part on student outcomes.

SOURCE: Education Week

Earlier on in the election cycle, it seemed possible that the GOP could gain control of the U.S. Senate, but a Republican takeover now looks increasingly unlikely, according to a Sept. 27 analysis of polling data by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. While the center’s director, Larry J. Sabato, identified six races as toss-ups—in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Indiana, Nevada, North Dakota, and Wisconsin—he and other political experts are expecting that the chamber will remain in Democratic hands, unless there is a significant shift in the political climate between now and Election Day.

If that prognosis is right—and if President Barack Obama is able to hold on to the White House—that would leave the current political landscape virtually unchanged. So far, the combination of a GOP-held House, Democratic Senate, and Democratic White House has added up to protracted gridlock on a host of budget and policy fronts.

Higher Ed. Headaches

However, the focus on budget is likely to mean that college-access issues will get some significant airtime in the new Congress. For example, the federally subsidized student lending program is one of a number of so-called mandatory spending programs that lawmakers may be looking to trim or change as they deal with deficit spending.

Lawmakers must also chart a new future for the Pell Grant program, which offers grants to low-income students to enroll in postsecondary programs. The Pell program is facing a serious shortfall of roughly $7 billion annually, in part due to increased demand for the grants from more students seeking a higher education during the economic downturn. So far, Congress and the administration have yet to come up with a plan to put the program on firmer fiscal footing over the long-term.

Fiscal concerns have been an issue in both the congressional races and in the presidential campaigns, particularly since Mitt Romney, the GOP nominee, selected U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the author of an austere budget blueprint, as his running mate. Mr. Ryan’s plan seeks to tamp down domestic discretionary spending, the broad category that includes education.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who oversees the panels that deal with K-12 funding and policy, sees the future of federal spending in areas like education as the “starkest difference at play” in the 2012 campaign, said Kate Cyrul Frischmann, a spokeswoman for the senator.

If Republicans are able to defy predictions and take over the Senate, they will likely seek to scale back the Department of Education. Mr. Romney has said he would like to shrink the department, and possibly combine it with another agency. (Reading K-12 Tea Leaves If a Romney Victory, Oct. 3, 2012.)

But the big formula programs that all school districts depend on—Title I grants for disadvantaged students and state grants for special education—aren’t expected to be first to the chopping block. Instead, GOP lawmakers are more likely to seek to scrap programs that have been at the heart of the Obama administration’s K-12 agenda, such as Race to the Top, the Investing in Innovation grant program, the School Improvement Grant program, and Promise Neighborhoods. Those programs were all slated for elimination in previous spending bills written by Republicans on the House appropriations committee—and they were restored after negotiations with the Democratic Senate.

Prospects for ESEA

The focus on postsecondary education and on spending issues means renewal of the ESEA could be pushed to 2014 or even beyond, particularly since most states have now been granted waivers from key portions of the No Child Left Behind Act, the law’s much-maligned current version. Still, Republicans on the House education committee and Democrats on the Senate panel that oversees K-12 policy listed renewing the law among their priorities for next year, in emails to Education Week.

And, in the next Congress, lawmakers’ to-do list is going to get even longer.

Nearly every major education bill is up for renewal, including the ESEA; the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Program, the largest federal program for high schools; the Community Development Block Grant program, which includes child-care funds for communities; the Workforce Investment Act, which deals with job-training; the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which covers special education; the Higher Education Act, which sets policy for the student lending program as well as teacher education; and the Education Sciences Reform Act, which governs the Institute of Education Sciences, the Education Department’s research arm.

Many of those measures have yet to be considered by either the House or Senate education committees.

“I don’t ever remember a situation like this,” said Vic Klatt, who has worked on education policy in Washington for decades, including as a top aide to Republicans on the House Education panel, and is now a principal at Penn Hill Group, a government-relations organization in Washington. “If Congress does not get its act together soon, it will become irrelevant to federal education policy. The administration will continue to manage policy in an almost unchecked manner.”

But if the GOP gains control of both houses of Congress and the White House, lawmakers may choose to act quickly on ESEA reauthorization, because Republicans are unhappy with the administration’s granting of waivers from portions of the NCLB law, which they see as usurping congressional authority, a Senate Republican aide said.

In that case, the final legislation could look like a package of measures passed by the House Education and the Workforce Committee last year, which would slim down the Education Department and get the federal government largely out of the business of school improvement. They would also require school districts to develop teacher evaluation systems based, at least in part, on student achievement.

Aside from teacher evaluations, that legislation tracks fairly closely with bills introduced in the Senate by a cadre of Republicans.

A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 2012 edition of Education Week as No Matter Its Makeup, New Congress Faces Policy, Fiscal Logjam


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