2014 Mid-Term Election: Changing of the Guard and Its Impact on Education Policy and Priorities

Changes

The mid-term election results are already having an impact on education policy at the national and state levels. With Republicans winning the majority in the Senate, increasing their majority margin in the House, adding more governors and continuing control of many state legislatures will affect the direction of education policy, priorities and practice for at least the next two years, and possibly longer.

It is too hard to track local school board elections, but given trends at the other two levels, there will likely be a similar impact on local board practices and decisions.

State Level
There were a significant number of gubernatorial wins by Republicans. This will have an effect on funding levels for education across the board, and policies in such areas as standards, assessments, vouchers, early learning, charter schools, choice, extended learning, school construction and access to postsecondary education. Look for efforts to create vouchers, expand charters and put a limit on some education funding.

One-third of the nation's chief state school officers are changing due to a new governor, state board selection, direct election, retirement or resignation.

Six states have just elected new chief state school officers — Oklahoma, Wyoming, Idaho, South Carolina, Georgia and Arizona. Other states changing the person who leads the state education agency include Utah, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Michigan, Florida, Texas, Alaska, Connecticut, Tennessee and Arkansas.

With the change in education leadership, there will new policies, priorities and practices toward assessment and standards. Clearly this will be the case in Oklahoma, Arizona, Georgia and Arkansas. It is not clear yet how it may affect other states. Other issues that most likely will come to the forefront include teacher evaluations, teacher tenure, teacher training, technology, charter schools, online education, and curriculum and textbooks.

National Level
Congress will significantly change in January. With Republicans taking the majority in the Senate, there will be new committee chairs and the setting of the legislative agenda. The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee chair will be Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN). He has already begun to verbalize some priorities, including addressing issues of student aid and debt in higher education, and trying to reauthorize the elementary and secondary education act (ESEA).

When Senator Alexander assumes the chair of HELP in January, he will be the first one to have already served as a governor, cabinet secretary, and college president. He brings a unique knowledge, perspective and experience to this position.

Under the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) some key committee chairs are obvious, but others are not. Some obvious ones are Charles Grassley (R-IA) – Judiciary; John Thune (R-SD) - Commerce, Science and Transportation; Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) – Energy; Orrin Hatch (R-UT) – Finance; and Johnny Isakson (R-GA) -Veterans Affairs. There are a few possible challenges to change committees and become the chair including Banking - Richard Shelby (R-AL) vs. Mike Crapo (R-ID); Appropriations – Thad Cochran (R-MS) vs. Richard Shelby (R-AL); and Budget - Jeff Sessions (R-AL) vs. Mike Enzi (R-WY). These would cause reshuffling with other committees due to seniority.

On the Democratic side there are no bids in the Senate to vie for ranking positions on committees.

In the House, Republicans padded their majority holding about 250 seats giving them a significant margin to control the agenda. John Kline (R-MN) will continue to chair the Education and the Workforce Committee as long as he gets a waiver from the leadership, since all committee chairs are term-limited. One likely committee chair change will be Paul Ryan (R-WI) to assume the head of the Ways and Means Committee, which has lead for all tax policy. Appropriations chair remains Harold Rogers (R-KY) and Scott Garrett (R-NJ) may assume the Budget Committee chair. Kline will continue to push for the reauthorization of ESEA and the Higher Education Act.

Everyone will be watching how the education debates of the past year — from Common Core wars to the pushback on high-stakes testing — change for ESEA in the 114th Congress. The House and Senate have had very different approaches to both ESEA and higher education. Can they come together with a cohesive strategy and policies in each bill?

Also, can Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) and the House Republican leadership control an increased number of very conservative Republican members in promoting their legislative agenda and priorities or will there be a revolt? The same is true for McConnell in the Senate. The first test will be how the Republicans react to President Obama's efforts on immigration policy during the lame duck session.

Interviews with more than a dozen conservative lawmakers and senior aides found a consensus among the right wing of the Republican Party. In the Senate they want to push an agenda they believe was hamstrung by the Democratic-controlled chamber, even if their bills end up getting vetoed by President Obama. They will pressure Boehner and McConnell on their issues.

The Lame Duck Session

The Lame Duck session is underway.

Much of what takes place during the Lame Duck session is being influenced by the mid-term election results. Republicans will be selective as to what they will support during this time before taking full control of both houses. Democrats are in a rush to push through some critical legislation and the Republicans are inclined to clear the legislative deck so they begin the new Congress with a clean slate.

The first items to be addressed by Congress among the many issues to be worked through are passing a budget bill, expiring tax extenders and a trade bill, as well as possible action on Ebola and the crisis in Syria. The Keystone Pipeline was the first item to be voted in both houses. Next may be immigration reform, which the President has threatened an executive order in lieu of legislation, and confirmation of some presidential appointments.

Two education bills are in limbo from before the election recess. They are the Strengthening Education Through Research Act and the Child Care and Development Block Grant. These require a Senate vote before they can go to the President for signature. The best guess is that these will be addressed during the lame duck, if not, they will have to be reintroduced at the beginning of the 114th Congress in January.

The Continuing Resolution funding the government expires on Dec. 11, and if not passed, the government will again be shut down. It includes support for military efforts in the Middle East. This resolution keeps the government open and continues to fund programs. It is already becoming a point of contention within the Republican party. Conservatives are threatening to either stall passing a Continuing Resolution, or forgo extending a long-term spending bill and instead pass a short-term option. This would be the first showdown with the President after the midterms. The other maybe the Keystone XL pipeline.

The upcoming session is also the last chance for retiring Senate HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) to work on his legacy. An aide has said the chairman will focus on his proposed Higher Education Act rewrite during his final days in the Senate. It is not clear what is on George Miller's (D-CA) agenda as he retires as the ranking member on the Education and the Workforce Committee in the House.

The 114th Congress

What can one expect during the 114th Congress that begins in January 2015?

How will Mitch McConnell lead the Senate in comparison to Harry Reid? Can John Boehner control some of his party's very conservative members? The question is now being posed for McConnell.

Some things are obvious, such as new staff working in Senate and House offices and committees. Also, in the House, Republicans will increase the number of members on a committee, and the Democrats will lose some due to the increased number of seats held by the Republicans. In the Senate, committee membership numbers should remain the same. But the Republicans will chair and hold the majority of seats in each committee.

As stated above, McConnell and Boehner have already decided to act quickly and send President Obama bills to fast-track international trade agreements, repeal an unpopular tax on medical devices and approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Some will be resolved during the lame duck session.
In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, Boehner and McConnell also pledged "a renewed effort to debate and vote on the many bills that passed the Republican-led House in recent years with bipartisan support, but were never even brought to a vote by the Democratic Senate majority."

One should anticipate that charter school or school voucher proposals to pop up early during the 114th Congress, as school choice legislation has been identified as a top priority by the Republican leadership in both the House and Senate. Senator Alexander has a school choice proposal allowing states to take most of their federal K-12 dollars and combine them into a block grant. The purpose is to create scholarships for low-income students to be used at any school, public or private. The current climate indicates that voucher program proposals are much more divisive than proposals to expand charter schools.

Other priority education issues for Republicans include education reform, financial aid and student debt, and Common Core-related assessments.

Other legislative priorities most likely include (in no priority order) tax reform, budget/appropriations including sequestration, health care, energy, defense and foreign affairs (per Syria, Iraq, etc.), trade, environment/climate change, immigration reform, infrastructure and the minimum wage. This does not mean there is agreement in the substance of the proposals. The House has the lead on tax reform. One sure thing is numerous votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

A key issue that cannot be overlooked or ignored is sequestration. It rears its ugly head again in 2015. Congress must address it. Neither party likes it. And Congress has been unable to find a legislative and budget solution.

As for the style of leadership, one can only guess. McConnell has said the Senate will be more open to amendments and more cooperative than under Reid. We shall see. It will also depend on how he manages the numerous very conservative Senate Republicans. Boehner has the same issue in the House as Speaker, along with his leadership team of Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Steve Scalise (R-LA). He has more conservative members that may have their own agenda.

With the retirement of a number of senior House and Senate members in high profile positions on committees, there are some big holes to fill given their experience, knowledge, perspective and standing amongst other members.

Also, the 114th is the beginning of a changing of the guard in both the House and Senate, more so in the Senate. Relationships and institutional memory are important in crafting legislation and working through differences. This will be a test for the 114th, since there have been so many retirements and new members elected.

Conclusion

It is too soon to tell what will transpire. So far, the Republican message has been let's find some common ground from which to work. The Republican leadership in both the House and Senate has its hands full with many independent thinking conservative members. How successful the leadership will be in gaining their support will be an indicator of how much can be accomplished. Another big unknown is what issues the President is willing to compromise on during his final two years in office and which he legislation he will veto.

The success of the 114th Congress to legislate and pass an appropriations bill will be one indicator. Just a reminder, even though there are two years before the 2016 presidential election, the clock is ticking for work to be completed by the 114th Congress. In reality, the session has only 14 or 15 months not 24 of real work when the members begin to focus on election campaigns not legislation and governing. And yes, the presidential jockeying campaign is already underway as you read this.

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