Democratic Majority to Put Education Policy On Agenda

By David J. Hoff — November 10, 2006 8 min read
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The leaders of the incoming Democratic-controlled Congress say they will make college affordability their top education policy priority, while also working to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, a goal they share with President Bush.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the presumptive next speaker of the House, said last week that Democrats will honor their campaign promise to curtail the costs of higher education by lowering student-loan interest rates and by expanding tax deductions for college tuition.

Democrats won at least 231 of the 435 seats in the House in the Nov. 7 midterm elections, with 10 seats still undecided late last week. The party also won a 51-49 majority in the Senate, counting two Independents who have promised to caucus with the Democrats.

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Meanwhile, President Bush cited the No Child Left Behind law as the kind of bipartisan issue he and Democrats could work together on once the current minority party takes formal control of the two chambers in January. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who most likely will become the chairman of the House education committee, said in an interview that he would like to have NCLB hearings soon after the 110th Congress convenes.

Yet education policy experts and former congressional aides predict the new Congress will struggle to accomplish both the Democrats’ higher education agenda and the politically difficult task of reauthorizing the NCLB law, which covers most federal K-12 programs.

“It will be an uphill battle, given the logistical demands of the transition and the political demands on the Democratic leadership agenda, which will focus on higher education first and foremost,” said Michael Dannenberg, the education policy director for the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank. Mr. Dannenberg worked for Democrats on the Senate education committee when Congress approved the almost 5-year-old education law by large majorities.

The prospects for the reauthorization might also be determined by a group of at least 40 incoming freshman Democrats, many of whom ran campaigns in which they criticized the law that President Bush made one of his top priorities when he took office in 2001. The legislation, which revamped the now four-decade-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act, requires schools and districts to meet annual student-achievement targets, among other mandates.

“Somebody who is newly elected … will have heard more complaints than praise for No Child Left Behind,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center for Education Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, and a former longtime aide to House Democrats. “They will want to voice the criticism they’ve heard.”

Rep. Miller, a staunch supporter of the NCLB law’s requirements holding schools accountable for student performance, said he believes that, in general, the law has as many supporters as detractors.

“I think the fact of the matter is that there’s a lot of critics of the bill,” he said in an interview the day after the elections. “But there’s a lot of supporters of the legislation, in terms of we have an obligation to provide a first-class learning opportunity to poor and minority children in this country.”

During the campaign, House Democrats outlined a six-point platform that included promising to raise the minimum wage, to protect Social Security benefits and workers’ pensions, and to accelerate turning over governing and security responsibilities in Iraq to that country’s government.

Different Lens

The only education item included in the pre-Election Day platform was to lower the cost of attending college. The 31-page book outlining the Democrats’ plans said the party would cut student-loan interest rates in half, simplify federal tax breaks for college tuition into a $3,000 tax credit, and raise the maximum Pell Grant award to $5,100, up from $4,050 now.

Beyond that, Democrats who will play a significant role in federal education policy said last week they would work toward reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind law on schedule next year.

Rep. Miller, who was one of the architects of the law, said he would like to begin the NCLB hearings while pursuing the college-affordability agenda.

Another Democrat who helped craft the law, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, has also said he would push for its reauthorization. Mr. Kennedy chaired the Senate education committee when the Democrats led that chamber before 1995, and once again when the balance tipped in their favor in May 2001 and until Republicans resumed control in January 2003.

Although the Democratic majorities in Congress may significantly change the debate over certain federal economic, budget, and national-security policies, the change in control is less likely to result in dramatic changes to the NCLB law and other K-12 policies, congressional aides and observers say.

If the Republicans had retained control, the debate over the reauthorization would more likely have focused on questions such as how widely to expand school choice requirements for schools failing to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the law.

The Democrats, however, are more likely to look for interventions to help struggling schools improve, and to provide money to help the states improve their testing for AYP purposes.

At the same time, Rep. Miller and Sen. Kennedy have been steadfast supporters of the testing-and-accountability requirements that President Bush considers essential to the law’s goal of raising all students to academic proficiency by 2014. (“Political Shift Could Temper NCLB Resolve,” Sept. 27, 2006.)

The return of Democratic control to Congress will not produce a “sea change” in K-12 policy debates, in contrast to the impact of Republicans’ capture of the House and the Senate in the 1994 midterm elections, argued Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington group that advocates charter schools and other forms of school choice.

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After their 1994 election victory, Republicans set out to dramatically scale back the federal government’s role in K-12 policy by closing the Department of Education and slashing the financing of many of its programs, including Title I and others that are now at the heart of the No Child Left Behind law. Those proposals, however, never became reality because President Clinton and congressional Democrats resisted them.

“This will be a change of lens,” Ms. Allen said of the Democratic takeover. “The modest change in philosophy is not going to make a major difference.”

But the new Democrats could complicate the NCLB renewal.

While Rep. Miller and Sen. Kennedy, both liberals, joined with President Bush in championing the law and support its central tenets, Democratic lawmakers coming to Washington for the first time are unlikely to have the same commitment to the law or any pride of authorship in it.

Most of the new Democratic freshmen, in fact, have significant reservations about the way it is affecting schools, according to their campaign Web sites.

Tim Walz, a high school teacher elected to the House from a southern Minnesota district, wrote on his site that the law is an “uneven, bureaucratic nightmare” that “harms the students and schools who need it most.”

Paul Hodes a Democrat elected from New Hampshire, promises on his Web site “to fix and fund, or to repeal, the No Child Left Behind Act.”

Such criticisms of the law will create political pressure to amend it, Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., said in an interview.

“As long as we let that discontent broil and bubble, we’re missing what works with” the law, she said. “If we put [the reauthorization] off too long, we’ll be throwing the baby out with the bath water. We need to fix what’s not working.”

Although Rep. Woolsey is the senior Democrat on the House Education Reform Subcommittee in the current Congress, she apparently won’t become the chairwoman of the subcommittee, which oversees K-12 education issues, when the Democrats take charge.

Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., said at a banquet attended by education advocates last week that he would use his seniority over Ms. Woolsey to claim the panel’s chairmanship. Mr. Kildee was the chairman of the subcommittee that spearheaded the 1994 reauthorization of the ESEA.

Republican Helpers

At a White Hosue press conference the day after the elections, President Bush said he would work with Democratic leaders to produce bipartisan legislation, citing the No Child Left Behind Act as a product of the parties’ collaboration in his first term.

Key House Republicans are likely to throw their support behind the renewal, including current Majority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio; Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, who chairs the education committee; and Rep. Michael N. Castle of Delaware, the chairman of the Education Reform Subcommittee.

But Mr. Bush may not be able to count on conservatives in his own party next year.

Conservatives who voted for the law in the president’s first term are not as likely to be as supportive in the current political environment. Many of them voted for the law to support their party’s new president and are less likely to do so as the president nears the end of his final term.

One thing the law has going for it, said Mr. Dannenberg of the New America Foundation, is a core group of powerful lawmakers and Bush administration officials squarely behind it.

“I wouldn’t put anything past the political skills of Senator Kennedy, Representative Miller, Secretary [of Education Margaret] Spellings, and the president,” Mr. Dannenberg said. “They are among the best in Washington at the art of closing a deal.”

Staff Writer Alyson Klein contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as Democratic Majority to Put Education Policy on Agenda

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