Federal

If Democrats Take House, What Next?

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 19, 2018 7 min read
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If Democrats take control of the U.S. House of Representatives next year—a distinct possibility, given some of the latest pre-midterm polling—expect civil rights to grab the spotlight and for congressional subpoenas in the name of education oversight to become more popular.

But Capitol Hill might not see as much of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos as a partisan punching bag as some might think.

The bad blood between Democrats and the Trump administration on education flowed right at the start, when they clashed with DeVos in a now-famous confirmation hearing more than 18 months ago. And Democrats have been scrapping with her and the U.S. Department of Education ever since, squabbling over federal education law, school spending, and more.

But what if Democrats find themselves the big winners from the November midterms and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., ends up holding the gavel on the House education committee? What issues would they focus on the most? How would they handle DeVos? And could Democrats’ eyes get too big for their stomachs?

Civil Rights in Focus

Scott said in a statement that in addition to “closing persistent gaps in educational equity and achievement,” Democrats “must hold the Trump administration accountable for attacking students’ civil rights and prioritizing corporate profits over the best interests of young people across the country.”

“One thing they’re definitely going to do is do a lot of oversight of the department. The secretary’s given them a lot to work with,” said Charles Barone, a former staffer for retired Rep. George Miller of California, a top Democratic lawmaker on education for years. (Barone is now the director of policy at Democrats for Education Reform.) “Does any of that change what the secretary is going to do? Probably not. But it’s something they should do.”

Democrats could follow up on their past criticisms that DeVos approved too many Every Student Succeeds Act plans that leave disadvantaged students, especially those of color, in the cold when it comes to labeling schools that need improvement.

They could zero in on her decision to revoke Obama-era guidance designed to ensure that transgender students have access to restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. The Obama-era guidance on K-12 racial diversity is also gone. The secretary is also considering pulling guidance related to racial disparities in school discipline, a top concern for Scott over the past several months, and an issue that’s been part of debates about school safety since the killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Beyond guidance, DeVos has delayed implementation of an Obama administration rule dealing with how districts identify and serve students of color with special education needs.

DeVos has changed how the department conducts civil rights investigations. She wants it to handle incidents on a case-by-case basis, whereas Obama investigators focused on uncovering systemic issues at schools. DeVos has approved changes to the case manual for those probes conducted by the office for civil rights.

She also has sought—unsuccessfully so far—to cut the office’s budget in two successive spending proposals. Democrats could bring that push into the larger criticisms they have about her budget blueprints.

Democrats could try to use a House majority to defend Obama-era initiatives, said Alice Cain, also a former staffer for Miller.

“It has seemed like everything Obama did, they want to undo, across agencies,” said Cain, now the executive vice president for Teach Plus, an educator-advocacy group.

Democrats could be particularly interested in using subpoenas to draw out what they’ve said are conflicts of interest regarding DeVos’ higher education work.

Room for Common Ground?

It’s going to be tough for Democrats to get significant policy bills through if the GOP continues to control the Senate. But a couple of bread-and-butter issues could prove exceptions.

School infrastructure, in particular, is an area where President Donald Trump, Democrats, and congressional Republicans could, in theory, find common ground, especially since it’s been a topic highlighted in recent teacher protests. And Democrats have the Rebuild America’s Schools Act already in the till—the legislation includes $100 billion for upgrading buildings and new projects.

More generally, newly empowered Democratic House appropriators could bump up money for the office for civil rights, teacher preparation, and other areas of DeVos’ budget.

Then there’s perhaps the primary driver of educator activism from earlier this year.

“Teacher pay was a big issue this spring,” said Lisette Partelow, the K-12 director of strategic initiatives at the progressive think tank Center for American Progress and a former Hill staffer. “They might want to do something about how a federal piece of legislation could address that.”

But getting a school infrastructure or teacher-pay bill to pass would be far from easy, even if Democrats control the House. And the forecast is pretty gloomy for big-ticket bills, like those covering the Higher Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Even if Democrats control the House next year, what they’re able to accomplish would depend a great deal on the Senate, which probably isn’t going to flip to the Democrats through the midterms. And it’s also possible that Trump would be less inclined to work with Democrats if they took power away from Republicans in the House.

By the same token, “a Democrat’s not going to win any points by showing up at a bill signing with Trump these days,” said Martin West, a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a former staffer for Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the GOP chairman of the Senate education committee.

One way Democrats could signal they are serious about addressing policy and not just making noise? They could move a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals bill in the first 100 days to codify DACA’s current protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. at a young age. That’s according to John Bailey, a visiting fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a former staffer of President George W. Bush.

“Outside of even the relevant committee, [DACA] was something that they [Democrats] all sort of rallied around,” Bailey said.

Compared with her predecessors’ relatively sleepy Capitol Hill hearings, when DeVos testifies, it tends to draw a crowd—and make news. Her comments about guns and undocumented students to Democratic lawmakers have made headlines, for example.

So should we expect to see DeVos up on the Hill all the time if Democrats run the House? Not necessarily.

A House staffer indicated that while frequently calling DeVos up to testify might be appealing to a certain extent, Democrats would be more interested in her deputies who can discuss her department’s approach in detail. So if Democrats are in control next year, there might be a relatively heavy dose of Kenneth Marcus, the assistant secretary for civil rights, and Frank Brogan, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, among others, in House hearings.

Barone of Democrats for Education Reform said that while calling DeVos to testify on a regular basis would be politically attractive, it’s doubtful it would have a broader impact.

“She’s already been subject to intense scrutiny around a number of issues. And that hasn’t changed how she conducts policy,” Barone said. “I wouldn’t expect any change to come from trotting her out in front of the committee and putting more pressure on her.”

And while DeVos may not be the most popular Trump official on Capitol Hill, Republicans wouldn’t just let her dangle in the wind as Democrats go after her on civil rights and ESSA, Harvard’s West said: “Republicans do have a different view from most Democrats in Congress as to how those issues should be handled. I doubt that you would see them failing to defend the steps that the department has taken thus far.”

‘Very Different Dynamic’

Teach Plus’ Cain recalled that the last time the House flipped to the Democrats, in 2007, subsequent meetings between her boss, other Democrats on the Hill, and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings were “cordial” and conducted in good faith.

“I think we had trust that Secretary Spellings had the same goals. Maybe a different way of getting to them sometimes. But the discussion was: How do you get there? It’s a very different dynamic right now,” Cain recalled. “I don’t think Democrats and Republicans would say [now] they’re even trying to get to the same place.”

Despite a less-forgiving political climate and the temptation to attack DeVos, her staff, and their policies at every opportunity, Cain said Democrats should also lay out a positive agenda for education if they were to win the House.

“If they’re holding five oversight hearings for every one ‘here’s our vision’ hearing, then yeah, it’s going to be perceived as overreach,” Cain said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2018 edition of Education Week as If Democrats Take House, What Next?

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