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Congress Likely to Stay Divided, Will Gridlock on K-12 Continue?

By Alyson Klein — November 06, 2012 3 min read
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The U.S. House of Representatives is likely to stay in GOP hands and the Senate under Democratic control, according to the Associated Press. Over the past two years, that combination has meant a lot of sniping and not much action on big issues, including the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

So does two more years of a divided Congress mean two more years of gridlock on key issues? Lawmakers will get their first test soon. Even before the new Congress takes office, lawmakers must figure out a plan to head off “sequestration,” a series of planned, 8.2 percent trigger cuts to nearly every federal K-12 program, including special education and money for disadvantaged students.

Earlier today, U.S. Rep. John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, said that he would see a House GOP victory as an indication that voters don’t want to see tax increases, which some Democrats have called for as a way to help put the nation on firmer fiscal footing.

“The American people want solutions—and tonight, they’ve responded by renewing our majority,” Boehner told the Republican National Committee in an election night speech. “With this vote, the American people have also made clear that there is no mandate for raising tax rate.”

The divided Congress must also get to work on a lengthy list of education legislation, including renewing the ESEA, as well as the laws that govern higher education, special education, career and technical education, and workforce development. And the lawmakers have to figure out how to cope with a roughly $7 billion shortfall in the Pell Grant program, and a planned rise in student loans, which are set to double to 6.8 percent next year. More here.

Over the past two years, the Republican House and the Democratic Senate have clashed on education funding issues. GOP lawmakers in the House have tried to boost funding for special education and disadvantaged students, while eliminating President Obama’s favorite programs, including Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, and the School Improvement Grants. So far, Democrats and the administration have been able to keep those programs funded. Will that dynamic continue?

Committees in each chamber have also approved bills to renew the ESEA law. While both scale back the federal role in gauging student achievement, they go in different directions when it comes to school improvement, teacher evaluation, and program consolidation. It’s unclear whether lawmakers will get to work on finding a compromise between those bills—or allow the administration’s plan to offer states waivers from key mandates of the current version of the ESEA, the No Child Left Behind Act, to stay in place.

No changes to congressional control means no changes to congressional leadership on education issues. U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, will remain the chairman of the panels that oversee both education spending and policy. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn, who wrote a series of ESEA renewal bills that significantly scale back the federal role in K-12, will stay as the helm of the House Education Committee.

One change? Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, a big advocate for rural schools who co-sponsored an ESEA reauthorization bill with Harkin, is term-limited as ranking member (top Republican slot). Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennesse, a former U.S. Secretary of Education who has been very skeptical of the federal role in education in recent years, will get first dibs on taking over that position in the next Congress.

Some important congressional race results tonight:

•Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., a big supporter of prekindergarten programs, was re-elected in Pennsylvania.

•Rep. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who was endorsed by Democrats for Education Reform, won the Senate seat in Connecticut.

•Former Rep. Pete Hoekstra, a Republican, who helped champion the A-plus Act, which sought to significantly scale back the federal role in K-12, was unable to unseat Sen. Debbie Stabenow in Michigan.

•Joe Donnelly, a Democrat, and former school board president and a fan of expanding higher education access, won the Indiana Senate race.

•Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill, a long-time member of the House education committee and a moderate was defeated by former Rep. Bill Foster, a Democrat.

•Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., defeated former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who has a long record on K-12 issues.

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