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GOP Gains Could Prompt Funding, Policy Shifts

By Alyson Klein — November 03, 2010 5 min read
House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio celebrates a GOP victory that changes the balance of power in Congress and will likely elevate him to speaker of the House, during an election night gathering hosted by the National Republican Congressional Committee on Nov. 2 in Washington.

Republicans seized control of the U.S. House of Representatives and significantly bolstered their majorities in the Senate in Tuesday’s election, an outcome that will almost certainly mean an end to emergency education aid to states and will heighten pressure for a more limited federal role in K-12 policy.

Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the House minority leader who is likely to become the speaker of the House, said in an election-night speech that Republicans will “take a new approach that hasn’t been tried before in Washington—by either party. It starts with cutting spending instead of increasing it. Reducing the size of government instead of expanding it.”

That’s likely to mean a move toward less federal involvement in education policy, which expanded under the Bush administration and the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, analysts said.

It’s also likely to lead to leadership changes under the new House majority. For example, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who is now the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, is in line to become chairman of the panel, although final decisions about committee leadership won’t be made before Congress convenes a lame-duck session later this month.

Some Democratic incumbents who have sought to influence K-12 policy—including some who had opposed expansive federal initiatives—lost their seats on Tuesday.

Among them was Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who was defeated by businessman Ron Johnson. Sen. Feingold was one of just a handful of lawmakers to vote against the NCLB law, the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, back in 2001. Since then, he’s introduced a series of bills aimed at giving districts more flexibility in implementing the law, and scaling back the law’s reliance on standardized tests.

Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, lost to her Republican challenger, former Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta. Rep. Shea-Porter has also criticized the NCLB law, particularly its emphasis on standardized testing. Mr. Guinta pledged to rein in spending.

And in Illinois, Rep. Phil Hare, a Democrat and a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, who tends to look out for rural schools, was defeated by Bobby Schilling, a pizza restaurant owner, who wants to allow states to opt out of the NCLB law’s accountability requirements.

In Florida, Marco Rubio, the GOP candidate and former state house speaker, beat Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Democrat, and Gov. Charlie Crist, who ran as an independent. Gov. Crist embraced federal economic-stimulus funding, and he vetoed a bill that would have made it easier to fire teachers and linked their pay to student test scores. That helped him earn the endorsement of the state’s teachers’ union. Mr. Rubio wants to boost school choice by offering scholarships to low-income students in failing schools, and he wants to see existing Head Start grant funds be used to fund prekindergarten scholarships for low-income children.

And at least one successful contender backed by the tea party movement, Republican Rand Paul, who won a Senate seat in Kentucky, has even gone so far as saying he wants to scrap the U.S. Department of Education.

But the Democrats were able to gain a victory in Delaware, where Chris Coons, the New Castle County executive, beat GOP nominee Christine O’Donnell, who was backed by tea party activists. Mr. Coons is a member of the board of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, which worked on the state’s winning bid for a slice of the $4 billion Race to the Top Fund.

Ms. O’Donnell won a surprise victory over Rep. Mike Castle, a Republican, in the GOP primary. Rep. Castle has a long record of bringing the two parties together to make progress on K-12 issues, and his defeat disappointed many K-12 advocates.

And Democrats prevailed in Connecticut, where Richard Blumenthal, the Democratic attorney general who sued the federal government over NCLB, beat Linda McMahon, the former World Wrestling Entertainment chief executive officer, for an open U.S. Senate seat.

Democrats were expected to hold onto the Senate, though a number of races were still close as of deadline early this morning. Those included the Colorado Senate race, in which Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, former Denver schools chief, and a key ally of the Obama administration on education issues, was up against Ken Buck, an attorney backed by the tea party who has said he wants to eliminate the federal Education Department.

The fate of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., was also uncertain. Sen. Murray has championed education funding and has introduced a comprehensive literacy bill. Her Republican opponent, businessman Dino Rossi, wants to crack down on spending.

In another pivotal race, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader, fended off a challenge from tea party favorite Sharron Angle, the Republican nominee, who also has said she wants to see the department scrapped.

Spending Concerns

Spending was also a major issue this election season in both state and federal contests.

Republican congressional candidates continually attacked Democratic incumbents for supporting the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the federal economic-stimulus program, which provided some $100 billion for education.

Only three Republicans ultimately voted for the package, and one of them, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, subsequently switched parties.

In a “Pledge to America” outlining their governance plan, House GOP leaders said they would like to return federal spending to fiscal 2008 levels, before Congress approved the stimulus and the Troubled Asset Relief Program, a rescue package for Wall Street.

Still unclear is the specific education policy direction the new majority might take in the House.

Mr. Boehner served as chairman of the House education committee back in 2001, and he worked closely with Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who at the time was the top Democrat on the committee. The two shepherded NCLB through the House, where it garnered overwhelming bipartisan support.

Rep. Kline said in an interview earlier this fall that he’s skeptical of the administration’s $350 million program aimed at helping states develop common, richer assessments. He wants to ensure that it doesn’t become a situation in which the Education Department is involved in creating the tests.

The Obama administration also asked for $1.35 billion in the fiscal 2011 budget to continue the Race to the Top program, a key administration priority born of the stimulus program, for an additional year and extend it to districts. Rep. Kline said in the interview that he wouldn’t support that. He thinks the program was too rigid and imposed federal policy preferences on states.

But there are also issues on which Rep. Kline says he sees eye-to-eye with the administration, such as the need to encourage the proliferation of high-quality charter schools.

And Rep. Kline and Rep. Miller’s staff have been holding regular discussions on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act throughout the summer and fall with the aim of laying the groundwork for a bipartisan reauthorization.

A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as GOP Gains Could Prompt Funding, Policy Shifts


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