Education Is a Top Concern for Senate’s New Freshmen

By Erik W. Robelen — November 29, 2000 6 min read
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Fresh from an election in which education played a prominent role, the Senate’s next freshman class boasts no shortage of members who are well-versed in the subject—and have a range of opinions on how the federal government can best help schools.

The newcomers include three former governors and a first lady who have all spent considerable time dealing with education matters, plus a former teacher.

Together, the 10 senators run the political spectrum, from a conservative who initially turned down federal Goals 2000 money as a state governor to a liberal who would far outspend the ambitious plan for education outlined by Vice President Al Gore during his presidential campaign.

But the freshman class of at least eight Democrats and two Republicans also includes a notable bloc of moderates who could add momentum for a middle-ground approach to reshape federal involvement in schools. With an almost evenly divided Senate, many observers predict that such an approach may be the only way to break the partisan stalemate that bogged down efforts this year to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. (“Elections Yield Delicate New Balance on Hill,” Nov. 15, 2000.)

“You’ll see a move to the center by both parties,” Sen.-elect Ben Nelson, D-Neb., who served as his state’s governor from 1991 to 1999, said in an interview.

Democrats picked up at least three Senate seats in the Nov. 7 elections, a shift that would give them 49 members. But the outcome of the Washington state race was still in doubt last week. Democrat Maria Cantwell was holding a razor-thin lead over Republican incumbent Slade Gorton as of Nov. 22; an automatic recount was expected under state law because of the narrow margin.

Even if Mr. Gorton loses, however, Republicans will retain control of the Senate. If Gov. George W. Bush of Texas wins the presidential election, his running mate, Richard B. Cheney, could cast tie- breaking votes in the GOP’s favor as vice president. And if Vice President Gore prevails, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., would have to relinquish his Senate seat; Connecticut’s GOP governor has indicated he would fill the position with a Republican.

A resolution to the disputed presidential contest was not expected until Nov. 26 at the earliest. The Florida Supreme Court set that date as the deadline for recounting the state’s ballots; whoever wins the Sunshine State’s 25 electoral votes will have enough to become president.

Expertise in Education

The most widely known Senate freshman may well be the most active on education matters: first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is said to be interested in pursuing a spot on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Her office did not return calls for comment.

Sen.-elect Clinton has a history of involvement with children’s issues, and during her campaign this year in New York state, she promoted core items from the agenda of President Clinton and Vice President Gore, such as providing federal money to help reduce class sizes, renovate schools, and attract new teachers. During her husband’s second term as governor of Arkansas in 1983, Mrs. Clinton chaired a committee whose efforts led to new state standards and a new teacher test.

Gov. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, a centrist Democrat who unseated five-term incumbent Sen. William V. Roth Jr., a Republican, also has focused significant attention on education, including championing a new state accountability system.

“As governor of Delaware and chairman of the National Governors’ Association, raising student achievement has been the focal point of what I’ve tried to accomplish,” he said in an interview.

The governor indicated that he was very interested in the ESEA proposal put forward last year by Sens. Lieberman and Evan Bayh of Indiana, two members of a centrist group known as the Senate New Democrat Coalition. That plan, which was offered last year as an amendment on the Senate floor but was defeated overwhelmingly, would consolidate an array of federal K-12 programs into five flexible funding areas, with more money but tougher accountability demands on districts and states.

“I believe they’ve struck a very good balance,” Mr. Carper said of the proposal.

Other centrist-leaning freshmen include Jean Carnahan, a Democrat from Missouri, who is expected to be named to the Senate seat won by her late husband, Gov. Mel Carnahan; two-term Rep. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.; Florida Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson, D-Fla.; and former Gov. Nelson of Nebraska.

The death last summer of Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., led to the appointment of former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller, another centrist Democrat, to the Senate. Mr. Miller was elected this month to finish out Mr. Coverdell’s term, which ends in 2004.

Tax Breaks for Education

On the Republican side, former Gov. George F. Allen of Virginia will be a new voice for Senate conservatives on education.

Mr. Allen, who ousted Democrat Charles S. Robb, championed his state’s push for high academic standards as governor from 1994 to 1998. He was the only governor to turn down federal Goals 2000 money, intended to encourage standards-based school improvement, because of concerns about federal intrusiveness; he later accepted the money after Congress amended the law to clarify that a state could use all of it on education technology.

“The first measure I’m going to introduce in the Senate is a $1,000-per-child tax credit [for education-related expenses],” Sen.-elect Allen said last week.

That measure would allow parents to deduct from their federal income taxes up to $1,000 per child for expenses such as buying computers, educational software, or tutoring, but not tuition costs.

The operating word in federal policy should be flexibility, Mr. Allen maintained. “The federal government can play a helpful role,” he said, but currently “there’s too much micromanagement, too many prescriptions.”

The other GOP freshman is former Rep. John Ensign of Nevada, who, as a House member from 1995 to 1998, had a low profile on education matters with a fairly conservative voting record. But education was a key theme in his campaign, during which he promised to reduce federal mandates on schools and ensure that more federal dollars were spent in the classroom, rather than on bureaucracy.

The one freshman with actual teaching credentials is Democrat Mark Dayton of Minnesota, who defeated first-term Sen. Rod Grams, a conservative Republican. Mr. Dayton, a multimillionaire heir to a chain of department stores, taught 9th grade science in the New York City public schools for two years after he graduated from college in 1969. He has proposed providing more money for Head Start and special education, streamlining federal reporting requirements on schools, and making college costs fully tax- deductible.

Another multimillionaire Democrat joining the Senate will be Jon Corzine of New Jersey. He proposed a $250 billion increase in federal education spending over 10 years—more than twice the $115 billion plan put forward by Mr. Gore—with money to help hire teachers, increase teacher pay, modernize schools, and make them safer.

“I support [the vice president’s] proposals, though some may fall short of my vision,” Mr. Corzine said in an August campaign address. He also has advocated a national scholarship program to guarantee two years of funding at a public college or university for every student who has and maintains a B average.

Next week: A look at some of the new faces in the House.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2000 edition of Education Week as Education Is a Top Concern for Senate’s New Freshmen


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