Republicans Back in Education Driver’s Seat

By Michelle R. Davis — November 13, 2002 9 min read
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>>Republicans Back in Education Driver’s Seat

Stopping at an airport in Portsmouth, N.H., several days before the midterm elections, President Bush urged voters to support the GOP candidate for the Senate there, Rep. John E. Sununu. But the president’s pitch, at least in part, had to do with the senior senator from New Hampshire.

“Electing John Sununu will help us change the leadership in the Senate,” the president said. “When we take over the Senate, we will be calling Judd Gregg ‘Mr. Chairman.’ ”

Sen. Gregg can go ahead and order some new business cards. The senator will chair the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee—replacing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.—thanks to the Nov. 5 victories by Mr. Sununu and other Republican candidates for the Senate.

President Bush, in fact, will soon find Republicans running every committee in Congress. The GOP expanded its slim majority in the House by several seats and wrested control of the Senate from Democrats.

Elections 2002

In the House, as of last week, the new breakdown according to the Associated Press was 228 Republicans, 203 Democrats, and one Independent who usually votes with Democrats, with three races yet to be resolved. The GOP will hold at least 51 of the Senate’s 100 seats during the 108th Congress. It appears that Democrats, who had 50 seats, will now hold 47 or 48 seats, with one Independent who likewise tends to vote with Democrats. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D- La., faces a runoff Dec. 7 because she did not exceed 50 percent of the vote last week, as required by state law.

Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., won re- election by such a slim margin—527 votes, well under 1 percent—that the state last week was reviewing the totals precinct by precinct. A full-fledged recount was still possible at press time.

While a GOP grip on the reins of the education committee—and the Senate overall—is sure to give Mr. Bush an added push for his agenda, some analysts downplayed the effect on education.

“I’m not sure that it’s going to make an enormous difference,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, who was an assistant secretary of education under President Reagan. “There’s this spirit of bipartisanship on education policy that I doubt is going to disappear just because of a shift of a couple seats in the Senate.”

For most bills to even reach a final vote, Senate sponsors require at least 60 votes to quash a potential filibuster. And the GOP is still far short of that magic number.

Mr. Finn pointed out that House and Senate lawmakers who led negotiations over the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001—Sens. Gregg and Kennedy and Reps. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and George Miller, D-Calif.—will all still play influential roles.

“The No Child Left Behind quartet is still going to be the education quartet,” Mr. Finn said. “I don’t think that anybody’s going to ignore Senator Kennedy or Representative Miller just because Judd Gregg becomes chairman.”

The next major education item on the House and Senate education committees’ agenda is reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which many observers say is likely also to be a largely bipartisan effort.

School Choice

The area in which education may well produce the most partisan debate in the next two years is budget and tax policy.

William A. Galston, a professor at the University of Maryland’s school of public affairs, says that having Republicans control both chambers increases the president’s leverage on the education budget.

“To a greater extent than before, the future of education spending will depend on what the administration wants it to be,” said Mr. Galston, who was a White House aide to President Clinton and an education adviser to the 2000 presidential campaign of Vice President Al Gore. Democrats in Congress have led the charge for raising spending over what President Bush has proposed the past two years.

Republicans are also expected next year to push for expanded tax cuts, a priority of President Bush. And with Republicans now controlling the Senate, they can see to it that a tax-cut bill is brought to the floor.

Michael Schwartz, the vice president for government relations with Concerned Women for America, an advocacy group in Washington, said tax legislation may be a vehicle for new measures to help families finance their children’s K-12 education, including at private and religious schools, something his group supports.

“There’s a good chance that in the next major tax bill that moves to the president, there will be an effort to include some provision to facilitate parental choice,” Mr. Schwartz said.

But if such efforts begin to smell too much like vouchers, they are likely to encounter stiff resistance from many Democrats and some centrist Republicans.

Tax legislation could also have an indirect effect on the education budget.

“I think anything that’s going to, in a climate of deficits, ... make a strong claim on revenue sources is going to be another challenge for getting adequate funding for education,” said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington-based umbrella organization that lobbies for increased federal aid to education.

Mr. Kealy also has a more pressing concern.

“The immediate question is what is going to happen to funding for this year,” he said. Congress is late in completing many fiscal 2003 spending bills, including the one that pays for the Department of Education. The new fiscal year began Oct. 1.

“It’s not really clear whether the lame-duck Congress is going to address it,” he said. “And that’s our worry.”

For his part, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., the incoming majority leader, indicated last week that he would prefer to delay final action on spending bills until the new Congress convenes in January. Congress was expected to begin its lame-duck session this week.

The midterm elections were only a speed bump for several faces familiar to the education policy world. Four out of the five GOP members of the Senate education committee who were up for re-election won. The exception was Sen. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas.

Both Democrats on the Senate committee who were on their states’ ballots last week were re-elected. A third committee Democrat seeking re- election, Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, was killed in a plane crash Oct. 25. (“Wellstone Recalled as Friend of Public Education,” Nov. 6, 2002.)

Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who serves on the education committee and has been the chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that governs education spending, won re-election. But Mr. Harkin, a major advocate for increased education spending, will lose his chairmanship. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, now the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, is expected to take that slot. Mr. Specter wielded the chairman’s gavel when the Republicans last controlled the Senate, prior to Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords’ departure from the GOP last year.

Of course, the elections also brought some new faces to the Senate—but not necessarily unfamiliar ones. Four new Republican senators—Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Jim Talent of Missouri, and Mr. Sununu—all have served in the House.

Another senator-elect, Democrat Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, has served three terms in the Senate, and retired two years ago.

Two other freshmen, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, have spent time in Washington as Cabinet members. Mr. Alexander was secretary of education under President Bush’s father. Ms. Dole was secretary of transportation under President Reagan and secretary of labor in the first Bush administration, and is married to former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.

GOP Gains in House

Meanwhile, the GOP strengthened its lead in the House by at least five seats. Reaching an outcome of one House race, in Louisiana, will require a runoff.

According to Congressional Quarterly, the next House should see 55 freshmen members.

Rep. Boehner of Ohio will remain the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. None of the panel’s four dozen or so members lost on Nov. 5, but a handful chose not to seek reelection.

One committee member, Rep. Patsy Mink, D-Hawaii, died in September. Her name remained on the ballot, and she was re-elected. The state will hold a special election Jan. 4 to fill the seat for the coming two years.

Perhaps the biggest change for Democrats is that Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri plans to step down from his leadership post.

Jack Jennings, the director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy and a former education aide to House Democrats, said he didn’t believe that news would make a significant difference for education. Whoever is the new minority leader, Mr. Jennings said, will continue to defer on education issues to Rep. Miller, the education committee’s ranking Democrat.

That said, the enhanced GOP majority in the House will affect the education agenda, Mr. Jennings said. He said the extra handful of Republican votes “weakens the position of the few remaining Republican moderates.” The GOP lost one of its leading moderates, Maryland’s Rep. Constance A. Morella, who was defeated by Democrat Chris Van Hollen.

Republican moderates—like Delaware Rep. Michael N. Castle, the chairman of the House Education Reform Subcommittee—have at times used their votes as leverage to make changes in more conservative education plans, Mr. Jennings said. “The agenda in the House will definitely be more conservative,” he said.

With the new House makeup, Mr. Jennings said, he expects to see more voucher legislation in that chamber, including the possibility of a voucher provision in the reauthorization of the IDEA.

Several freshman members have either a background in education or a history of working on education issues.

In Florida, Republican Tom Feeney captured the newly created 24th District seat. As a speaker of the Florida House, Mr. Feeney was Gov. Jeb Bush’s close ally for sweeping education changes, most prominently the “A-plus” plan, which includes taxpayer-financed school vouchers.

Republican Rob Bishop, who won the race for the 1st District seat in Utah, has been a high school teacher for 28 years in addition to being a former speaker of the Utah House. He opposes federal involvement in education and supports the use of vouchers to allow parents to send children to public or private schools.

In Arizona, Democrat Raul Grijalva was an assistant dean for Hispanic student affairs at the University of Arizona and served on two separate school boards for a total of more than two decades, according to his campaign Web site. He also has had an elementary school named after him.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Republicans Back in Education Driver’s Seat


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