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What Has This Congress Actually Gotten Done on Education?

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 25, 2018 5 min read
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When the current Congress kicked off at the start of last year, there were a lot of education issues to tackle. So as the first two years of Congress during the Trump administration come to a close, what did the lawmakers accomplish and where did they come up empty?

The to-do list, or at least the list of issues the 115th Congress could have taken a serious look at in January 2017, was topped by a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act—Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., made it clear it was his education priority as Senate education committee boss. A new higher-ed law could impact the K-12 space in a number of ways, such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, Pell Grants, and the Teacher Quality Partnership program.

And here are some other education education (and education-adjacent) topics still up for lawmakers’ consideration:

  • Updating the Individual With Disabilities Education Act, the law addressing students in special education
  • Overhaul of Head Start, the program for early-education services
  • Education research law
  • Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)
  • STEM education
  • School construction (remember Infrastructure Week?)
  • Juvenile justice
  • Student-data privacy

The Republican-controlled House and Senate got off to a relatively brisk start in early 2017 by voting to repeal Obama administration rules governing the Every Student Succeeds Act and teacher preparation.

Otherwise, perhaps the biggest legislative accomplishment Congress can point to is passing a bipartisan reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. As with special education and Head Start laws, the Perkins law was well past due for reauthorization. But the CTE legislation, while it ultimately got the crucial support of the White House and many education and business community, was relatively low-hanging fruit for policymakers. And it wasn’t a radical overhaul of existing law.

Through its 2017 tax overhaul, the GOP also agreed to change the rules for 529 college savings plans to allow parents and guardians to use them for K-12 expansion. That was a win for school choice, although even its supporters—including U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos—said it was a pretty limited one. A push by Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., to expand school choice for children connected to the military fell flat.

After those items, however, the record starts to thin out pretty fast. Congress also passed appropriations bills funding the U.S. Department of Education for fiscal 2018 and 2019, although highlighting that as an accomplishment is sort of like praising people for brushing their teeth. And they were several months late in passing their fiscal 2018 appropriations for education. One of the most notable aspects of those funding bills is that the GOP Congress ignored the Trump administration’s push for new school-choice initiatives, ones that would have had a broader impact on policy and politics than the 529 plan change.

“For a new administration, obviously your first few months is your best shot at doing something big,” said Michele McLaughlin, a former Democratic Hill staffer who’s president of the Knowledge Alliance, a lobbying coalition for the education research community. “They came in wanting to do something on choice, and they were going to try to do it through it the appropriations process. And that was pretty soundly rejected on both sides.”

As for that higher education legislation? It’s been dead, or mostly dead—to borrow a phrase from the late William Goldman—for roughly a year. Under North Carolina GOP Rep. Virginia Foxx’s leadership, the House education committee passed the PROMISE Act in late 2017 to update the Higher Education Act. Since then? Pretty much nothing—Speaker of the House Paul Ryan declined to even schedule a vote on the bill. And Alexander’s attempt to work out his own higher-education legislation with his Democratic counterpart on the Senate committee, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, collapsed many months ago.

What about DACA, special education, Head Start, and those other items we listed earlier? There’s been pretty much nothing. To be fair, it’s not as if advocates for those various issues were necessarily expecting a lot of action this Congress, even with Republicans dominant in Washington. Some advocates might even be happy that Congress left their respective issues alone. But whatever the expectations were for those areas, there’s been very little meaningful action—some official DACA proposals in the Senate were essentially dead on arrival, while the Senate passed a reauthorization of juvenile-justice law last year.

Arguably, some of Congress’ most prominent work involved holding Capitol Hill hearings featuring DeVos. From her confirmation hearing to comments she made to lawmakers about undocumented students and firearms, DeVos made news several times in Congress, willingly or otherwise. But that’s not the same as Congress passing legislation. (Related reading: The Washington Post in conjunction with ProPublica recently examined Congress’ dysfunction when it comes to seemingly straightforward tasks.)

It’s worth remembering that in its first two years, the Trump administration hasn’t placed a huge, public emphasis on driving big shifts in education policy, compared to its efforts regarding other policy areas. For example, once the 529 tweak became law, McLaughlin said, “It just seemed like all the wind went out of the sails” when it came to lobbying for choice in Congress.

To be fair, the career and technical education bill was an instance where Trump officials did some relatively high-profile lobbying to get a deal done, including visits to Capitol Hill by Ivanka Trump. Perhaps not coincidentally, lawmakers subsequently passed the CTE bill. The Trump team hasn’t made the same kind of effort on special education, data privacy, or elsewhere.

Technically, there’s still some time on the game clock left for this Congress. But during the little that remains of this Congress, lawmakers primarily are going to focus on funding big parts of the government by Dec. 7, or else there will be a partial government shutdown. (Even if there is a shutdown, it wouldn’t directly impact the U.S. Department of Education, since lawmakers funded it through fiscal 2019. So don’t expect DeVos’ agency to be in the news much as the Dec. 7 deadline looms.)

This all this means that the next Congress, with Democrats newly in charge of the House, could choose to pass significant legislation on any number of education issues. Will it do so? Maybe keep your chips away from the middle of the poker table for now.

Photo: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate education committee. Lawmakers started the 115th by prioritizing an overhaul of the Higher Education Act, but have fallen short. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP-File

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