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What Could Be in Store for Education if Democrats Get More Power in Congress?

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 25, 2016 10 min read
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After the presidential election, perhaps the most pressing political question in Washington is this: Can Republicans maintain their majorities in both the House and Senate? So if Democrats gain control in one or both chambers, who’s likely to take control of the key K-12 committees? And what does that mean for public school policy?

First, keep in mind that it’s not easy to answer these questions, and the latter in particular, without first considering whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump becomes president. And of course, the GOP might keep control of both chambers of Congress, which would obviously hamper, if not cripple or kill, big education initiatives a President Clinton might want to see done.

Remember also that each time a new session of Congress starts, lawmakers shuffle between committees, subcommittees, and different leadership posts, regardless of whether there’s a new party in charge of the chambers or not.

We’ve broken down this analysis into two separate pieces, one on the Senate and one on the House. We’ve also split up each analysis into sections on potential leadership changes, and on possible issues lawmakers could tackle.


Leadership: We’ve written before about the situation involving education committee members Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., currently the top Democrat, and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Murray might take over a leadership position in the Senate if Democrats win the chamber. Even if she does, she might want to retain her spot on the education committee anyway. But there will likely be a decent amount of political pressure to make Sanders the top Democrat on the K-12 panel. (Sanders is technically an independent, but he caucuses with the Democrats and ran for the party’s presidential nomination, so we’re referring to him accordingly.)

There’s also the possibility that Sanders would instead take over the Senate budget committee, where he is currently the ranking member, but very recently in fact Sanders indicated he’d prefer to take over the education committee.

Congress watchers say it’s hard to imagine any Democrat other than Murray or Sanders holding the party’s top spot on the education committee. If Sanders takes over, he’d also have a nationally prominent ally on education issues, and on higher education in particular, in Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Noelle Ellerson, an associate executive director with AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said Sanders has worked well with her group on rural education and ed-tech issues, but hasn’t focused much on K-12 overall. However, she praised his staff, and said AASA would welcome his leadership of the Senate education panel “if he runs a committee the way he runs his office.”

Murray and Alexander have a history of working across the aisle to get things done—check out the Every Student Succeeds Act if you need proof. But she’s never been chairwoman of the education committee, although she has previously led the Senate budget committee. ,

(Notice the potential Washington merry-go-round here: It’s possible that in the span of about two years, Murray could reprise her role as Senate budget committee boss, where Sanders is the top Democrat, while Sanders could take over the Senate education committee, where Murray is the top Democrat.)

As for Sanders, he simply doesn’t have the same track record as Murray of pushing legislation out of the committee, said Michele McLaughlin, a former education staffer for retired Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa who’s now president of the Knowledge Alliance, an advocacy and policy research group.

“It’s not just your positions, it’s the ability of your staff to work with the minority’s staff to get things done,” McLaughlin said. “If you have a history of working out these deals, it helps.”

And even if Democrats take control, “In the Senate, power gravitates to people who know the most. ... [Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the current committee boss] is someone who knows the issues better than any other senator and will be in a position to make or break these kinds of things,” said Vic Klatt, a former GOP staff director with the House education committee who’s now a principal at the Penn Hill Group, a lobbying firm.

Issues: Let’s first mention oversight of ESSA. Alexander has been particularly critical about how the U.S. Department of Education has handled regulations for accountability and spending. If he’s bumped from being in charge of the committee, his particular brand of oversight will dissipate. But make no mistake: No matter who’s in charge, committee leaders in both House and Senate will want to keep a close eye on the department for their own reasons.

Murray, for example, has said the department needs to rethink how it handles accountability for student subgroups. (Unlike Alexander, however, Murray has not threatened to sue the Education Department over its ESSA regulatory proposals.)

But perhaps the highest-profile issue that could be on the table for the committee is reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Both Trump and Clinton have said they want to change how people pay for college. Co-opting a big chunk of the Sanders campaign agenda, Clinton wants to make public colleges and universities tuition-free for students from low- to moderate-income households.

However, Alexander told us back in July at the Republican National Convention that “I don’t see any way the federal government can afford the Sanders-Clinton philosophy” when it comes to college costs. So unless a Democratic chairman is particularly crafty, or working with a majority that is even bigger than most predict if Democrats retake the Senate, getting a sweeping version of “free college” through the chamber might be particularly tough.

On the other hand, major changes to higher education policy and big-ticket issues like college affordability often go through other avenues than the Higher Education Act, Klatt noted. The Affordable Care Act, for example, instituted direct loans from the federal government to college students, a major change in policy. And other big changes to higher education have gotten through Congress via things like the budget reconciliation process and a highway bill, Klatt noted.

“In the higher ed world, something big is coming. It’s not exactly clear what. But change is in the air no matter what the outcome of the election is. It’s just a matter of when,” Klatt said.

Earlier this year, the House passed a reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. But the committee recently pulled a proposed GOP-backed reauthorization bill of its own, and if senators can’t get a bill done in the upcoming lame-duck session of Congress, lawmakers will have to start all over again.

Head Start is also due to be reauthorized. If Murray is the chairwoman of the education committee, as a big fan of early education programs and a former preschool teacher herself, she could be in a prime position to exert a lot of influence over what the next Head Start reauthorization looks like.

McLaughlin said that while lawmakers overseeing the budget tend to like Head Start, those who authorize its programs are more skeptical of its impact. Still, she said, “Head Start should be reauthorized ... within this first term of the next administration.”

And more broadly, if Clinton is elected and makes a serious push to create a federally funded universal preschool program or something similar, Murray would likely be crucial to any effort to get relevant legislation passed in Congress.

House of Representatives

Leadership: If Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., is the top Democrat on the committee. With GOP Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the committee chairman, retiring after this Congress, Scott would be the easy choice to lead the committee if Democrats take control of the House.

However, Scott’s also been discussed pretty prominently as a candidate to take over a Senate seat representing Virginia if Sen. Tim Kaine becomes vice president under Clinton. So what if Scott does get that vacant Senate seat?

The person next in line to be the Democratic leader of that committee, based on seniority, is Rep. Susan Davis of California. Davis has been in Congress since 2001. She previously served on the San Diego school board and has also served as a representative in the California Assembly.

“We haven’t had a ton of close working relationships with Davis,” Ellerson said. “I’ve seen her do more in the teacher space.” (More on that below.)

And the California Democrat hasn’t necessarily been as vocal on high-profile education issues as some of her fellow Democrats on the committee, like Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, and Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado.

As it stands now, the House education committee roster looks pretty stable when it comes to the election, since only one member out of 38, GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, appears to be locked in a close re-election fight. That’s separate, of course, from any departures and arrivals for the committee once the next Congress begins.

Issues: Assuming Scott stays in the House and takes over the education committee, Ellerson said folks should continue to expect him to focus on equity-related issues in education. Scott, for example, has joined with Murray in urging the U.S. Department of Education to require states, under ESSA, to exercise more oversight over how schools are held accountable for the performance of student subgroups.

Scott has also worked with Kline to build bipartisan support behind bills to reauthorize Perkins and juvenile-justice programs that were passed unanimously by the House. So if both of those bills don’t make it to the president’s desk before the next Congress, Scott would presumably be interested in moving along similar bills out of his committee if he’s in charge of it.

But what about Davis? She and Scott are clearly in sync on at least one key issue. As Ellerson alluded to earlier, you might have seen Davis in the news recently because she co-sponsored a bill, along with Scott and 10 other lawmakers, to “empower school districts to develop targeted recruitment and retention strategies ensuring that all students, regardless of their socioeconomic status, are taught by an excellent, well-supported, and diverse teacher workforce.” Read the bill here.

Her legislation has the backing of the American Federation of Teachers, the Center for American Progress, and Teach for America, among other groups.

Davis has also prioritized gender, racial, and socioeconomic equity in federally supported career and technical education programs. She supported the bill to overhaul juvenile-justice programs that passed the House recently.

Still, “I’m not sure that anybody would point to her as a major player on education policy,” Klatt said.

One other point about Kline: He would have been a good candidate to lead a push to reauthorize the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act in the next Congress. (IDEA reauthorization is seven years overdue.) Among remaining members of Congress, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., has written legislation focused on students with special needs.

It’s also worth noting that Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., has pushed for full funding of IDEA. So has GOP Rep. Dave Reichert of Washington state. However, Van Hollen, who’s not on the House education committee, is a pretty good bet to be Maryland’s next U.S. senator, so it’s unclear if he’d continue to focus on IDEA issues if he’s elected to the Senate. Reichert is seeking re-election.

Ellerson also said that if it falls short this year, a new Child Nutrition Act could get done in the next Congress.

And let’s also assess the prospects of Trump’s $20 billion plan to dramatically expand school choice for low-income students. During the ESSA reauthorization push last year, Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., tried to make Title I funds for disadvantaged students “portable” to the public and private schools of their choice. (Incidentally, a top Messer aide is now Trump’s K-12 policy adviser.) But that idea didn’t pass the GOP-controlled House. So if that Title I portability plan fell short in the GOP-controlled House, Trump’s choice plan might face very stiff opposition and ultimately get rejected, especially if Democrats take the House, but even if Republicans keep their majority.

Bonus: If the Republicans keep control of the House, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., is often mentioned as the most likely successor to Kline as head of the education committee. Click here to read our question-and-answer piece with Foxx from a few weeks ago.

Foxx is currently chairwoman of the education’s subcommittee on higher education and workforce training. Rep. David P. “Phil” Roe, R-Tenn., has also been mentioned as a possible Kline successor.

File photos from top: Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.; Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., at left, and Rep. John Kline, R-Minn.; Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va.

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