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How the 2018 Elections Could Impact Education in Congress

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 17, 2016 4 min read
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Are you ready for the next round of federal elections and their potential to change the course of education policy? Maybe not—but either way, let’s take a look at the landscape.

As many political handicappers have been pointing out for some time, the 2018 map for congressional elections looks very challenging for Democrats, particularly when it comes to the U.S. Senate. They must defend 25 seats in re-election bids, compared to just eight Republicans, who already have the majority in the chamber. And 13 of those Democrats represent states in which the majority of voters picked Republican President-elect Donald Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton in the election, including Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

So, in addition to the House of Representatives, where the elections take place every two years, here are the U.S. senators who are up for election in 2018 who could play key roles in federal K-12 policy on the Senate education committee. All are now on the education committee, although they may not be when the next session of Congress gets started. And all of them are Democrats.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin: The junior senator from Wisconsin is a big fan of the Every Student Succeeds Act’s Title IV block grant. The block grant is designed to help districts provide arts education, health and wellness programs, technology infrastructure, and more. She bemoaned that the Senate committee approved just $300 million for the program for fiscal 2017 this past summer—it was authorized for about $1.5 billion under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

“Without strong funding, I fear the incredible potential of this program won’t be realized,” Baldwin said in June.

She’s also been a big backer of open educational resources, along with GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.

Sen. Bob Casey Jr.: The senior senator from Pennsylvania has previously shown interest in reauthorizing the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. He’s sponsored legislation to mandate anti-bullying policies in local districts.

And along with outgoing GOP Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, Casey has backed the Obama administration’s preschool grants.

Sen. Chris Murphy: The junior senator from Connecticut is perhaps best known for his advocacy in favor of stricter gun control laws, and he’s used the 2012 school shootings at Newtown Elementary School in Sandy Hook, Conn., as a backdrop, including during a 15-hour Senate speech.

He’s also a K-12 accountability hawk, including on federal spending issues.

Sen. Bernie Sanders: We don’t know yet if the junior senator from Vermont will displace Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., as the top Democrat on the Senate education committee.

Sanders hasn’t been heavily involved in public school policy in the Senate recently. If Clinton had won the election and the Democrats had taken over the Senate, he might have led the charge to institute tuition-free public colleges and universities as the chairman of the Senate committee. And he’ll likely continue to push to make college access less of a financial burden for prospective students. Just how far he’ll get with a Trump administration and a GOP-controlled Congress is another matter. He did call for investing in education, not prisons, during his speech at the Democratic National Convention.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren: The senior senator from Massachusetts has often focused on higher education issues—she backed Clinton’s plan to provide free tuition at public higher education institutions for most Americans.

But she’s proven to be a big fan of the annual testing mandate in federal law. That’s because Warren feels that it provides much-needed accountability for the billions of dollars states get in federal K-12 aid. At the state level, Warren also came out against the Massachusetts ballot initiative to raise the cap on the number of permitted charter schools; that initiative was defeated.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse: The junior senator from Rhode Island, during ESSA negotiations, introduced an amendment to create grant program allowing states and districts to scale up “innovation” schools (Whitehouse eventually withdrew that amendment.)

He’s also fought Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., over whether to restrict school districts’ power to hire certain individuals convicted of some crimes and require background checks on all employees—Whitehouse favored not intervening in these local hiring decisions.

BONUS: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., are also up for re-election in two years. They’re not K-12 policy leviathans in Congress, but they have put a lot of focus on sexual assault on college campuses through the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. One thing to watch for is to what extent they push the Trump administration and the Republican Congress on that issue in the next two years.

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