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Buckle Up, Betsy DeVos: Democrats Have Won the House

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 07, 2018 5 min read
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For the first time in eight years, Democrats were on track to take control of the House of Representatives as the result of Tuesday’s midterm elections, ushering in some big changes in how Washington handles education—but not necessarily huge changes in policy.

As of early Wednesday, Democrats had picked up at least the 23 seats required to win the chamber, according to the Associated Press and other projections. That gives Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia control of the House education committee. Scott, currently the top Democrat on the committee, was poised to take over the chair from GOP Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the first Democrat to chair the committee since retired Rep. George Miller of California, who was chairman from 2007 until 2011.

However, any wholesale policy changes on education coming from the House will likely be checked by the Senate, which will remain in GOP hands. And President Donald Trump, of course, remains in the White House.

What’s the biggest impact of Democrats controlling the committee? Most of all, it means increased oversight of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Since DeVos assumed office more than 18 months ago, Foxx has called the secretary to testify before the committee only once. But with Scott in charge, you can expect to see more of DeVos on Capitol Hill, where she often makes news willingly or otherwise.

That’s because Democrats have attacked DeVos about virtually everything she’s done, from her decision to nix Obama-era guidance expanding transgender students’ access to school facilities, to her (so far unsuccessful) pushes to cut the U.S. Department of Education’s budget. Scott and others won’t be disappointed to see more headlines like the kind DeVos has created over undocumented students and gun control in her few public appearances before federal lawmakers.

Spotlight on Civil Rights

In particular, you can expect lots of questions about how DeVos has handled civil rights, particularly since Scott used to work as a civil rights attorney and has led other Democrats in opposing the Trump administration’s decisions about affirmative action, racial integration of schools, and how the office for civil rights has deemphasized investigations into systemic bias and discrimination, among other issues.

You can also expect Democrats to hone in on the Every Student Succeeds Act. They’ve been bashing DeVos for months because they think she’s been approving state ESSA plans that flout the law and don’t pay enough attention to underserved students. Those ESSA issues that worry Democrats are also closely connected to civil rights in education.

Still, you shouldn’t expect to see DeVos on the Hill all the time. Why? Democrats on the Hill have indicated that they want a bunch of Trump administration education officials to testify about specific policy decisions in various areas. So you might see officials like Kenneth L. Marcus, the assistant secretary for civil rights, and Frank Brogan, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, take their turns testifying as well.

Moreover, just because Democrats will control the House doesn’t mean you should expect sweeping changes to education policy. Democrats’ proposal to overhaul higher education through the Aim Higher Act, for example, will probably stall in the GOP-controlled Senate even if the House votes to pass it. And any push they make on issues like school integration, funding for school construction, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and more could hit all kinds of snags and quickly get tossed aside by the Senate and the Trump administration.

Finally, as we indicated, it’s possible Scott and others will focus more attention on higher education than K-12. Why? Democrats on the Hill believe they might be able to use subpoena power to showcase what they believe are conflicts of interest at the Education Department. Focusing on DeVos’ higher education record might also help Democrats appeal to young voters as the 2020 presidential race gets underway.

Taking Stock of Turnover

How did House education committee lawmakers fare? Here’s how some Republicans in tight races fared:

  • Rep. Dave Brat of Virginia lost his race.
  • Rep. Jason Lewis of Minnesota lost his race.
  • Rep. Karen Handel of Georgia was still locked in a tight race of of Wednesday morning.

The new wave of Democrats in Congress next year will also be part of some turnover on the committee.

Among prominent lawmakers who won’t be returning are Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., and Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind. Rokita and Polis are the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House subcommittee on elementary and secondary education, and Messer is a veteran and prominent champion of school choice. We’ll be watching to see which Democrats, rookie or otherwise, get added to the committee roster.

Also keep in mind that with the House under Democratic control, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., is set to take over as the leader of the House appropriations subcommittee that handles spending at the U.S. Department of Education.

And what about the Senate? We recently profiled how education was playing into several prominent races. Here are a few results in several of those contests:

  • The race between incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Florida Gov. Rick Scott is in a recount . Nelson and Scott traded accusations about school safety and gun control in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school massacre in February.
  • Mike Braun, the GOP Senate candidate in Indiana, beat Democratic incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly. Donnelly touted his record on early-childhood education.
  • In a race for an open Tennessee Senate seat, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., defeated former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat. Bredesen backed Tennessee’s involvement in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grant program and backed moves to include test scores in the state’s teacher-evaluation system. Blackburn has backed charter schools and making home schooling easier.

This article has been corrected to reflect the most current status of the Nelson-Scott race in Florida.