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What’s at Stake for the Senate Education Committee as Run-Off Elections Loom

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 10, 2020 8 min read
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Like many of President-elect Joe Biden’s plans, his vision for education depends in part on which party controls the Senate. That now hinges on two January runoff elections in Georgia. In addition, the Senate education committee will need a new leader no matter who takes over the panel.

The coronavirus pandemic’s impact on schools will likely dominate the committee’s time, whoever runs it. There are also laws about student privacy, special education, and other issues that are overdue for an overhaul. However, aside from negotiations involving the Higher Education Act during the Trump administration, there hasn’t been much momentum recently to revamp those laws on Capitol Hill. In general, passing major standalone bills is just a tall order in Congress these days. And there will be a new education secretary to confirm.

Let’s look at the senators who could ascend on the committee depending on what happens during the elections and the issues they’ll face in 2021.

If Republicans Hold the Senate

We know at least one thing regardless of what happens in those January run-off elections: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the committee chair and one of the nation’s most experienced education policy figures, is retiring at the end of this Congress. He’s led the panel since 2015 and was a primary architect of the Every Student Succeeds Act. He’s been a governor, U.S. education secretary, and university president. There’s no like-for-like replacement on the way.

In the next Congress, “It’s not going to look like how it worked with Lamar,” said Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

Going by rank on the committee, the Republican set to replace Alexander is Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. Next in line is Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., followed by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

When Congress passed ESSA in 2015, Burr successfully pushed for a change to how federal money to train, recruit, and retain teachers and principals is distributed to schools. Essentially, this formula shift under Title II gives more weight to states’ poverty rates and less weight to their overall population. More background is here.

Not long before ESSA passed, Burr also shared a plan to change how Title I dollars are distributed. His 2015 blueprint would have provided more money for disadvantaged students to about two-thirds of the states. But lawmakers from states in the Northeast and Midwest that would have lost aid money criticized his plan. Ultimately, Burr’s proposal didn’t make it into ESSA.

Keep this in mind: Burr has said he will leave office when his term ends in 2022. That leaves him little time to make his mark as chairman on the committee. Burr also has an ethics scandal dogging him: He resigned as chairman of the Senate intelligence committee earlier this year after the FBI opened an investigation into stock sales he made ahead of a market drop as the coronavirus spread.

Burr deserves credit for his work on the “huge issue” of Title II funding as well as his focus on Title I, Ellerson Ng said. But since then, she said, it doesn’t appear as if he’s focused as much on education issues.

“It’s hard to say at this point which aspects of the education portfolio he would both lead on—and work in a collaborative manner on—to move legislation in a bipartisan manner,” she said.

In 2016, Burr voted against the confirmation of John B. King Jr. to be President Barack Obama’s education secretary, and said he did so in part because of King’s support for the Common Core State Standards. Burr has also spoken out against federal mandates in education generally, and said parents and local school boards are the best decisionmakers in education. He voted for ESSA.

Paul, who’s run for president and arguably has a higher national profile than Burr, might be more of a wild card as chairman. Although he doesn’t always stick with GOP orthodoxy, his push to cut back or get rid of the Education Department and his robust school choice proposals might make negotiations a dicey matter.

“What I would anticipate with Paul is that potentially common ground on bipartisan bills would be harder to come by,” said Danny Carlson, the associate executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

This year, Paul has made headlines for disagreeing publicly with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, about the best response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Collins is notable for voting against U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ confirmation in the Senate in 2017, although she did vote to advance DeVos’ nomination out of the committee. She later clashed with DeVos about funding for the Rural Education Achievement Program. She’s also a champion of after-school programs.

However, Collins won reelection last week and plans to take over the powerful Senate appropriations committee if, as expected, there’s a vacancy for that job after 2022 and the Republicans keep the Senate again. That job also obviously has a direct impact on federal education spending.

The political fallout from a divisive election could be a big X-factor in how Burr, Paul, or whoever leads the committee handles Biden’s education secretary nominee and other key issues going forward. And remember that the Senate education committee also deals with health, labor, and pension issues.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, one of two incumbent GOP Georgia senators in the January run-off elections, is a member of the committee.

If Democrats Win the Senate

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is the committee’s top Democrat, a former preschool teacher, and the most obvious candidate to take over as the committee chair under that scenario.

However, if Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., joins the Biden administration, Murray would become the next in line to lead the Senate budget committee (Sanders is currently the top Democrat on the budget committee.) That panel is generally considered more influential than the education committee. In that case, the next Democrat in line to lead the Senate education panel based on seniority would be Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. Sanders also happens to be next in line, seniority-wise, to lead the education committee after Murray. But other political considerations might make that scenario a non-starter.

During her time on the committee, Murray worked closely with Alexander to help write the Every Student Succeeds Act. Since then, she’s lobbied for vigorous oversight of how states and schools are adhering to the law’s accountability provisions. Not surprisingly given her previous work with young learners, she’s also been an advocate for early-education funding, and successfully pushed for new Preschool Development Grants as part of ESSA’s passage.

In addition, she’s criticized the Trump administration’s Title IX rule for how schools must respond to reports of sexual misconduct, saying it would hurt survivors of assault and harassment. During the pandemic, she’s pushed for a significant federal relief package for schools, including $175 billion in a stabilization fund for K-12 education as well as dedicated funding for the E-rate, while scorning school choice proposals from the White House.

Murray and Alexander worked productively together at several points, although the Trump administration and DeVos’ tenure put a strain on the relationship.

“They were both able to push for and support compromise,” said Ellerson Ng, of AASA, referring to Alexander and Murray. “It’s not that the others don’t support compromise. Alexander and Murray just got along. Sometimes it’s just a personal relationship. Both took the committee seriously, both wanted to advance education policy.” She added that it was unclear to her what Murray’s working relationship with Burr and Paul is like.

One of Murray’s first big jobs as committee leader would be overseeing the confirmation hearing for President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for education secretary. While Murray would obviously work to ensure a friendly atmosphere for the nominee, DeVos’ controversial nomination hearing before a GOP-controlled committee in 2017 is a reminder that the process isn’t an automatic cakewalk.

Technically, ESSA is up for reauthorization. Good luck finding anyone who thinks Murray will prioritize overhauling a law she helped write. Still, Murray could hold some oversight hearings to focus on how schools are addressing students’ needs under ESSA in the context of the pandemic.

She also might not see eye-to-eye with other Democrats about things like testing waivers the Education Department might give to states due to the pandemic’s disruption; Murray supported DeVos’ announcement earlier this year that states shouldn’t expect those waivers, although the Biden administration might have other ideas.

Otherwise, Ellerson Ng said Murray has been a “big champion” of coronavirus relief for schools, and that will likely continue in the next Congress.

Murray holds several powerful positions on Capitol Hill. She is the third-ranking member of Senate Democrats’ leadership team and is also a senior Democrat on the Senate appropriations committee, which helps set annual federal spending levels for different departments. Her clout could serve education interests particularly well during upcoming coronavirus relief negotiations if she adds the leadership of the education committee to her portfolio.

“That becomes a catch-all for a lot of stuff,” said Carlson of the elementary principal schools group. “You have to lobby for your priorities and your committee’s priorities to be in there. For her to be in leadership is advantageous.”

Although they failed in their 2020 presidential bids, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sanders could remain on the committee as high-profile senators and see their roles expand if Democrats control the panel.

Photos: Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing earlier this year (Al Drago/Pool via AP); Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., speaks about the coronavirus on Capitol Hill earlier this year (AP Photo/Alex Brandon). (Diptych by Andrew Ujifusa/Education Week)

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A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2020 edition of Education Week as Who Could End Up Heading Top Senate Panel on Education Issues