Republicans picked up eight seats in the U.S. Senate on election night to take control of that chamber for the first time since 2006 and expanded their control in the U.S. House of Representatives by gaining a dozen seats. The move to Republican control of the U.S. Congress could bring action in early 2015 on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB); no increases in education spending for the next couple of years; and an unclear future for some of the president’s competitive grant programs such as Race to the Top, according to panelists during a November 10 webinar hosted by the Alliance for Excellent Education and Washington Partners, LLC.
“I’m going to switch back into the more bullish category of Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “For the first time, I’m actually thinking something could move. The question is whether it could move‚ whether a House bill can conference with the Senate, but, even more importantly, reach an agreement that the president will sign. I think he’s probably inclined to want to sign something, but I don’t think he’s going to sign just anything.”
Joining Wise on the webinar were Phillip Lovell, vice president of policy and advocacy for comprehensive high school reform at the Alliance for Excellent Education; Ellin Nolan, president of Washington Partners, LLC; and Della B. Cronin, principal at Washington Partners, LLC.
Among the biggest changes the panelists discussed were the changes in leadership of the committees responsible for education policy. Even before the election, longtime education champions Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), and Representative George Miller (D-CA), top Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, announced their retirements. With the Republican takeover of the Senate, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) is expected to become chairman of the HELP Committee.
“It goes without saying, Senator Alexander is among the most knowledgeable people on the Hill when it comes to education,” Lovell said. “He was Secretary of Education; he was president of the University of Tennessee and was a former governor. He knows the issue very well and is very passionate about it.”
Lovell characterized Alexander as “eager to legislate” and also predicted some movement on ESEA “early into the next year.”
Although Republicans will control the Senate in 2015, they are short of the sixty votes necessary to override a filibuster, which Democrats can use to prevent a measure from being brought up for a vote. Nevertheless, Republicans will chair the committees and write legislation.
“Although the Republicans don’t have sixty votes in the Senate, they’ll still be running the show,” Lovell said. “And they’ll be running the show in a much different way, I think, than what their Democratic‚ soon-to-be predecessors did.”
One way that the Senate could operate differently under Republican control is by being more active in holding oversight hearings on Obama administration policy.
“I think you’ll see lots of requests for information, lots of letters asking for status updates,” Cronin said. “I think that [House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN)] and Mr. Alexander are not fans of the waivers, and I think will probably put some pressure on Secretary Duncan to prove the value of this effort to them.”
Nolan agreed that Kline and Alexander would like to reduce the power of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. One way to do so is by choosing not to fund competitive grant programs such as Race to the Top that “leave a lot of money in the hands of the Secretary of Education to decide where it goes,” Nolan said. She added that competitive programs such as School Improvement Grants, Race to the Top, and Investing in Innovation (i3) have “very little, if any” Republican support and face a questionable future in terms of funding.
The easiest way to limit the secretary’s power is by passing an ESEA reauthorization that could make waivers obsolete, but Nolan said that Republicans would need to build some Democratic support for the bill. “If they don’t build any Democratic support for either bill, it’s kind of a guaranteed veto,” Nolan said. “The administration likes the waivers, far better than either the bill that the House passed last year or the one that Mr. Alexander has developed.”
One interesting component in the waiver debate is timing. Last week, in a November 13 letter to chief state school officers, the U.S. Department of Education offers guidance for how a state can request a renewal of its waiver. Requests must be submitted no later than March 31, but congressional action on ESEA could muddle the process.
“States are going to have to go along with that process, but it’s understandably very frustrating because as they’re going through this process where they’re submitting several hundreds of pages of documentation to the Department of Education, if ESEA passes, some of that policy will likely change,” Lovell said. “Changes that will be made to the waiver policy will, in all likelihood, just provide more flexibility to states, rather than less. So, it’s not going to be a matter of states having to do a lot more; it’s that they have agreed to comply with certain things that, under new policy set by Republican Congress, they wouldn’t have to do.”
Archived video from the webinar is available “on demand” at