What can Democrats in Congress do to make the best of a bad hand in pushing their education agenda—and where does the president fit in?
Hemmed in by a Republican-controlled Congress and President Donald Trump, the top Democrats in the Senate and House have been working to parry GOP advance in other policy areas, with a willingness to deal with Trump when it serves their interests. Prime example: the deal Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi struck with Trump last month to raise the debt ceiling and keep the federal government running through the rest of 2017.
The move stunned GOP leadership, and it’s led us to ask: If Trump is willing to cut that kind of deal with a party he frequently blasts, are there any deals to be had on education and education-related issues?
Based on conversations with some folks in the K-12 world, along with news developments, here are a few areas where there could be enough common ground in theory for Democrats to strike some kind of deal with Trump, along with bills Democrats have introduced:
- The Dream Act, to protect those now covered by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that provides protections for those brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
- Early child-care, specifically expanding benefits for child-care costs.
- School infrastructure spending.
- Anti-bullying protections.
- Career and technical education.
- Issues related to higher education like Pell Grants, but not necessarily reauthorizing Higher Education Act itself.
For each topic where it’s available, we’ve linked to a bill introduced by Democrats on the issue—let us know if we’ve missed anything relevant. (Republicans are co-sponsors for two of the bills, too.) The legislation generally conforms to the type you might envision coming from Democrats—maybe not the best proposals to move in a polarized Congress run by the GOP. Two more things to note:
- Ivanka Trump (Trump’s daughter and a White House adviser) has been an advocate for expanding early-child-care benefits, and the president introduced a proposal addressing the issue during the 2016 campaign, although some analysts were unimpressed.
- First lady Melania Trump has said she is interested in addressing bullying, although what if anything might get done along those lines through the White House is uncertain.
Regardless of the fate of bills already pending in Congress, where could Democrats and Trump come together when it comes to education?
Here’s what Sen. Patty, Murray. D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, told us in a statement:
At a time when many people across the country are still struggling, Republicans and Democrats in Congress should work together to find solutions that strengthen the middle class and help students, parents, and [college loan] borrowers get ahead. I believe there’s a lot we should be able to agree on, including addressing the rising costs of high-quality child-care and a comprehensive approach to making college more affordable, accessible and accountable—so I hope Republicans are able to push aside the most extreme elements of their base and work with us to find bipartisan solutions that invest in our students, workers, and families.
A deal on higher education, a relatively high-profile education issue, might be close to impossible, especially since U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has riled Democrats for her shift away from the Obama administration’s work on college loans and student debt, as well as revoking Obama-era guidance on Title IX.
Still, some kind of accord on the Dream Act is likely the Democrats’ best bet to work with Trump and other Republicans, said Charlie Barone, the policy director at Democrats for Education Reform, which urged Democrats not to take jobs in the Trump administration earlier this year .Barone said there’s even a decent chance a deal on Dream Act and DACA could be reached before Christmas. (Congress has about five months until Trump has said he will end DACA protections.)
“There are opportunities to work across the aisle where there wouldn’t be a reason to prevent Democrats from seeing what those opportunities might be,” said Charles Barone, a one-time staffer to Rep. George Miller of California and Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, both Democrats. “They’re definitely going to catch some flak from people at the farther end of the [Democratic] spectrum. But I don’t think saying ‘We’re not going to work with this guy on anything’ is especially productive.”
Issues dealing with revenue, including school infrastructure spending and expanded child-care benefits, might be harder, even though Trump has expressed general interest in infrastructure spending. And bullying prevention is of special interest Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who has introduced a bill several times designed to crack down on bullying in schools, the Safe School Improvement Act (along with an anti-bullying bill from California Democratic Rep. Linda Sanchez that we linked to above). However, both bills deal with gender identity and sexual orientation, issues that a GOP-run Congress might not want the federal government involved in, especially after the controversy over now-repealed Obama-era guidance on transgender students.
Barone noted that additional spending on things like K-12 infrastructure might be under consideration at the Office of Management and Budget and other areas of the federal government for months, and likely wouldn’t be unveiled until some time early next year. At the same time, Barone pointed out that former Sen. Ted Kennedy, a stalwart liberal, worked with Republican colleagues to establish the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in the mid-1990s, after Republicans took control of Congress in the 1994 elections.
“The Clinton people didn’t think that was feasible at all,” Barone said. “But Kennedy pursued it. And it was a big win.”
There’s a decent chance lawmakers could slip some kind of expanded child-care benefit into the GOP’s bigger tax-reform package, said Vic Klatt, a former House GOP education staffer who now works at the Penn Hill Group lobbying firm. In addition, the Senate could always pick up the bipartisan bill to overhaul the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which the House approved over the summer, Klatt said. Some sort of deal involving Pell Grants for those in the workforce could move through Congress. And at least some Democrats, along with Trump, would be pleased if increases for charter school funding in the House and Senate education appropriations bills survive, even though it’s not as much of a bump as Trump wants.
But anyone who thinks that the Dream Act, school infrastructure spending, or any other education-related compromise will be easy for Dems to hammer out with Trump and the GOP is mistaken, Klatt noted. For example, while Klatt said he thinks some version of the Dream Act will pass, “It’s not going to be easy. And there’s going to be a lot of blood on the floor” before the end, especially in a House GOP caucus divided on the issue.
“It’s going to be tough for all of them to move,” Klatt said. “Every once in awhile, there are issues that come along where it’s in everybody’s interest to do something. A classic example of that is ESSA,” referring to the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act.
Tone and Experience
What may have happened recently that could make education-related deals at least slightly more possible? The recent collapse of the GOP’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, said Alice Johnson Cain, the executive vice president of Teach Plus, which helps teachers take leadership roles in shaping education policy.
Had that effort succeeded, “I think it would have been next to impossible for any of this if that had passed, in terms of the climate and the tone,” said Cain, who was also an education staffer at one time for Miller.
Of course, the repeal effort could very well come back in fiscal 2018, squelching any sort of dealmaking spirit. Addressing the debt ceiling was essentially a must-do item on Washington’s priority list, making it potentially different than other policy issues. And of course, Democrats don’t control either the House or Senate as they did at the time of past education-related legislative deals involving Republicans in Congress and the White House.
Finding the right vehicle is also key, especially when there are sharp partisan divisions over the budget, Cain said. For example, even though she and her organization are hopeful about teacher-preparation issues being addressed, she said proposals by Trump and House Republicans to eliminate $2 billion in Title II aid for teacher preparation—and the subsequent outcry from teacher and other education groups—"does make it harder” to address those policy issues.
Ultimately, Cain said, what could get these sorts of tricky political deals done are “the longstanding relationships, and to some degree friendships, between staffers, Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate, who’ve been in this for a really long time.”
“There are a lot of tactical ways to do it, once people get together and say, ‘This is what we want,’” she said. “When I talk to my former colleagues [on Capitol Hill] now, I find myself saying, ‘Thank you. Thank you for sticking it out ... in these very difficult times.’”