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Is Education Playing in Congressional Races?

By Alyson Klein — August 21, 2012 3 min read
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The presidential race—Barack Obama vs. Mitt Romney—has been getting most of the airtime in the national media and on Politics K-12, even if education rarely comes up in the campaign.

But control of Congress is going to be just as important, if not more so, than control of the White House when it comes to some big K-12 cliffhangers. (For example, what happens to the prospect of those automatically triggered funding cuts, known as sequestration? Do Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and the Investing in Innovation program get to continue? Will Congress ever again reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act?)

After the November election, the House of Representatives is expected to remain under GOP control, but the Senate is a true tossup, according to political analysts. Here are some individual races that have implications for education policy and spending:

•In Minnesota, U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., is in a somewhat competitive race, although political analyst Larry Sabato is betting on Kline to win it in the end. Kline, is of course, the chairman of the House education committee and the author of the House’s bill to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. His legislation takes a big step back when it comes to the federal role in K-12, but stops short of eliminating the U.S. Department of Education. Kline’s support of for-profit colleges (he’s fought to get rid of the administration’s Gainful Employment regulation) has emerged as an issue in his race against his Democratic challenger, attorney Mike Obermueller.

•Last week, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson won the GOP Senate primary, which means that most political analysts see this as a safe pickup for the Republicans. Thompson doesn’t include “education” in the “issues” section on his campaign website, and a quick review of local news stories shows that the issue hasn’t been a big deal in the race, at least so far. But, as governor of the state in the 1990s, Thompson amassed a significant record on education policy, working to tamp down teacher pay and pushing for a voucher program. And he’s got an interesting track record on the No Child Left Behind Act, too. Together with former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, he served as co-chairman of the Aspen Institute’s Commission on NCLB. The panel’s 2007 report called for voluntary national standards and tests as well as teacher evaluation based in part on student outcomes (sound familiar?)

•In Montana, Rep. Dennis Rehberg, a Republican, will face off against Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat. Right now, Rehberg serves as the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending. He’s a big fan of the Head Start program for early childhood education—which many Republicans see as ineffective. And he’s put forth some politically interesting education spending bills, moving to provide big boosts for formula grant programs that districts (and their advocates) rely on, while completely scrapping the Obama administration’s favorite competitive grant programs (i.e. Race to the Top). So far, his approach mostly hasn’t prevailed in the final bills. Interestingly, Rehberg was just one of four Republicans to vote last year against the budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan—Romney’s vice-presidential running mate.

•Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., a long-time moderate member of the education committee, is in a tough race against Democrat Bill Foster, a physicist and former congressman. Biggert has bucked her party on K-12 issues, voting against vouchers for students displaced by Hurricane Katrina. And she introduced (then withdrew) an amendment to the panel’s ESEA bill that would make teacher evaluation voluntary, rather than a requirement, for districts. She’s also a long-time supporter of the McKinney-Vento program for homeless kids.

I’m sure this is a far from a comprehensive list of important races. What other Senate and congressional races should I add to my Google Alerts?

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