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Could Bernie Sanders Step Into an Education Leadership Role in Congress?

By Alyson Klein — May 11, 2016 3 min read
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If you take a look at the Democratic delegate count, it’s clear that it’s pretty unlikely that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., will end up being the party’s presidential nominee.

But that doesn’t mean that Sanders won’t have the chance to make his mark on education policy. In fact, there’s an outside, slim, but still interesting-to-think-about chance that he could end up becoming the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, or even the panel’s chairman come January.

Why? First, some complicated inside baseball: The panel’s current top Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, an author of the Every Student Succeeds Act, may have other opportunities. Murray is often cited as a potential candidate for the No. 2 position in the Democratic Senate ranks—also called the Whip—although it’s possible she could stay on as the top Democrat or chair at HELP even if she were to get that promotion. (To be clear, Murray hasn’t said one way or the other whether she’s going for it.)

What’s more, Murray is now the third-ranking Democrat on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, and the Democrat with the top slot, Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, is retiring. Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont is expected to keep his post at the Judiciary Committee, potentially putting Murray in the enviable position of getting to choose between two committee chairmanships.

To be clear, Murray has expressed no interest in leaving the helm of the HELP committee, and she has a long-time passion for the issues under its jurisdiction, including education. So there’s a good chance she’ll keep her current gig and will say thanks-but-no-thanks to an opportunity to take a top position on the Appropriations Committee.

Still, if she does decide to leave her post, the next most senior Democrat on the committee is ... Sanders, who will have just come off a presidential bid that, even if he falls short, will have gone much further than anyone initially expected. And if Democrats take control of the Senate, as some prognosticators are forecasting, Sanders could even be the panel’s chairman.

So what would that scenario mean for education? Some folks worry that Sanders will stick to his ideological guns if he is a key power player on the education committee, and won’t be willing to compromise, the way Murray has, like the way she did in working with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. and the committee’s current chairman, on the Every Student Succeeds Act and other legislation. That would mean already-overdue rewrites of career and technical education legislation and special education legislation could be stalled, not to mention a revamp of the Higher Education Act.

But Joel Packer, who retires from his gig as executive director of the Committee for Education Funding this week, had a different take.

“He would have to decide, do I continue as Bernie Sanders the presidential candidate ... and sort of become a big rallying point and spokesperson,” or decide to work across the aisle, Packer said.

He expects that at the very least, Sanders would likely continue to push for his “free college” plan, in which public colleges and universities would be tuition-free, since that’s the only education bill he’s introduced this Congress. And he said that Sanders is a big fan of community schools, dual enrollment, and extended learning time. (More on Sanders’ record from Andrew, here.)

But he also noted that recently, Sanders has stood with Democrats on education issues, even though he is an independent and self-described socialist. For instance, during Senate consideration of a bill that eventually became ESSA , Sanders joined 40-odd Democrats to vote in favor of an amendment by Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut that would have bolstered accountability—even though the move angered some of his progressive supporters.

“You could argue that he’s being a team player,” Packer said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., smiles as he is asked about running for president during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 29.--Carolyn Kaster/AP

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