More ‘Blue’ Congress to Tackle Education

By Alyson Klein — November 11, 2008 5 min read
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President-elect Obama can look forward to working with a beefed-up Democratic majority in Congress when he seeks to enact his education agenda after taking office in January.

After last week’s elections, the Senate will have at least 55 Democrats plus two independents who currently caucus with the party. The outcomes of races in three states were still unclear late last week, according to the Associated Press. The current Senate has 49 Democrats and the two independents, giving the party a slim, 51-seat majority.

In the House of Representatives, Democrats will gain at least 18 seats, with the outcome of at least one race still unclear last week, according to the AP. The House had 235 Democrats and 199 Republicans going into the Nov. 4 elections, with one vacancy.

The top education matter awaiting the new president and the incoming 111th Congress is the renewal of the almost 7-year-old No Child Left Behind law, which has created a fracture within the Democratic Party’s traditional coalition.

Some left-leaning researchers, social scientists, and educators contend that society needs to invest significantly in children’s health care and other social services, as well as extend learning time, before student achievement will increase dramatically.

Read more news and analysis at Campaign K-12, your education road map to the 2008 state and national elections.

Other Democrats, including some urban educators and civil rights activists, favor tough accountability measures, innovative systems of teacher pay, and an expansion of charter schools. They say such approaches can increase student achievement regardless of other changes in social policy.

Now that the Democrats will control both the executive and legislative branches for the first time since the first two years of the Clinton administration, they will have to reconcile their differences in order to reauthorize the NCLB law, said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization.

He said Democrats would be looking to the new Obama administration to set priorities for the law’s reauthorization. Mr. Obama campaigned on revamping teacher training and bolstering resources for prekindergarten, but he wasn’t very specific about how he would reshape the No Child Left Behind Act. (“Obama Gets to Work on Transition,” this issue.)

“I’m confident that [Democrats] will resolve the differences among themselves,” said Mr. Jennings, who served as an aide to Democrats on the House education committee from 1967 to 1994. “I don’t think there will be deep divisions, because of the moment, because of the political demands of the time.”

“Democrats have been out of power for so long,” he added, “they understand that they have their chance now. It isn’t a permanent chance, they could lose it; [the] moment means they have to govern correctly.”

Republican Minority

Republicans, particularly in the House, meanwhile, are likely to pursue a more conservative course and seek a reduced role for the federal government in education, Mr. Jennings said.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, introduced a bill last year that would permit states to opt out of the NCLB law’s central accountability system, for example. Nearly 70 GOP lawmakers have signed on to that legislation.

Three Republicans on the House education panel were victims of the Democrats’ electoral wave last week. They include two moderates: Rep. John R. “Randy” Kuhl Jr. of New York and Rep. Ric Keller of Florida, who is the ranking member on the subcommittee that deals with higher education.

A former Pell Grant recipient, Mr. Keller has long been an advocate for boosting money for the higher education grant program, which helps low-income students pay for college.

Rep. Tim Walberg of Michigan, a freshman who had joined in sponsoring Rep. Hoekstra’s legislation, also lost his bid for re-election.

Vic Klatt, a lobbyist with the Washington firm Van Scoyoc Associates who until earlier this year served as the staff director for Republicans on the House education committee, said: “Not all moderates will be gone. ... There are folks who have an ability on both sides to reach across the aisle.”

Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the former education committee chairman and an author of the NCLB law, is likely to continue as House minority leader, Mr. Klatt said. And Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the ranking Republican on the education committee, successfully worked with Democrats to renew the Higher Education Act this year.

Mr. Klatt said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the education panel, will be the most powerful person on education policy apart from the president, since he is a confidant of both President-elect Obama and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Mr. Klatt also suggested that some Democratic opponents of the No Child Left Behind law may team up with Republicans who want to scale back the federal role in education.

Congressional Changes

Four freshman Democrats on the House education committee will return to Congress for second terms. All pulled out narrow victories in 2006 and were considered possible Republican targets earlier in this election cycle. They are Reps. Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania, Joe Courtney of Connecticut, Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire, and John Yarmuth of Kentucky.

Meanwhile, a high school social studies teacher from North Carolina is headed to Congress. Larry Kissell, a Democrat and a vehement critic of the No Child Left Behind Act, defeated Rep. Robin Hayes, a Republican. Mr. Kissell hammered Rep. Hayes for his support of the law, even though the Republican incumbent had since joined in supporting a bill sponsored by Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., that would make significant changes to the law’s accountability system.

The Senate gained a champion for high school redesign in former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat. As the chairman of the National Governors Association from 2004 to 2005, Mr. Warner made improving secondary education a priority.

He encouraged his fellow governors to expand opportunities for students to earn college credit in high school, such as through Advanced Placement courses and dual enrollment, and to give college and work-readiness assessments at the high school level to ensure that students are ready for postsecondary education and the workplace.

Mr. Warner easily defeated his Republican opponent, former Gov. James Gilmore, to succeed Sen. John W. Warner, who is no relation and is retiring after 30 years.

A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2008 edition of Education Week as More ‘Blue’ Congress to Tackle Education


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