boilerplate image
Your daily serving of high school news and policy.

Decision 2012: How Will the Elections Affect Federal and State Education Policy?

RSS feed

November 09, 2012 03:27 pm


After months of intense campaigning, the 2012 elections have come to a close, begging the question from education advocates: How will the results of the 2012 elections affect federal and state education policy?

This post will answer that question, focusing on what is likely to change–and what will not–at the federal and state levels. It will also look at some new faces who will play a role in education policy in the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate, and in governors’ mansions and state legislatures around the country.

Federal Policy Landscape

At the federal level, the Obama victory ensures that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) will carry out its NCLB waivers/flexibility policy, under which substantial changes to education policies have been made by thirty-four states and the District of Columbia. Many states are moving toward systems intended to yield deeper learning, and the continuation of the administration’s flexibility policy opens the door to further federal support and incentives for states, districts, and schools to advance these approaches. The Race to the Top-District competition demonstrates an evolution in the administration’s theory of change regarding education reform that can be expanded in its second term.

The continuation of the Obama administration also opens the door to policies supporting Linked Learning and the acquisition of knowledge and skills that will prepare students for college and a career. For example, ED issued a proposal for the reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, and it also included funding for career academies in the 2013 budget request. As the U.S. Congress and the administration look for areas of potential bipartisan compromise, this issue could become a higher federal priority.

One of the major policy changes advanced by the administration across federal education programs is the move toward competitive funding. ED is likely to continue to push competitive programs, as they are viewed as an effective way to advance reform and an efficient strategy for allocating limited dollars.

Of course, the federal budget will continue to be a contentious matter. Sequestration must be addressed within the next several weeks in order to avoid $4 billion in cuts to ED. Shortly thereafter, Congress will need to pass the 2013 appropriations bills that were postponed until after the elections. While major increases in education funding at the federal level are unlikely, the Obama victory and composition of the U.S. Senate make the task of maintaining current investments a stronger possibility. Equally important is the need to ensure these resources drive reform rather than simply supporting the status quo.

One area ripe for this goal is federal financial student aid. Student aid programs currently increase access to higher education, but they fall short of actually supporting postsecondary completion. Moreover, the current approach to funding these programs is unsustainable. The Obama administration’s emphasis on college access and completion, combined with continued budget pressures, may open the door to policy reform that will make federal financial student aid both fiscally sound and more effective.

A New Cast of Characters in the U.S. Congress

The congressional committees with jurisdiction over education spending and policy will undergo a modest degree of change as a result of the elections:

U.S. Senate

The most important education policy changes taking place in Congress are not the results of the elections; rather they are the results of republican rules that limit the number of years a senator is allowed to serve as ranking member of a committee. As a result, Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY) will no longer serve as ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP). This position will likely be assumed by Lamar Alexander (R-TN). This is significant because Senator Alexander did not support the bipartisan bill reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that was passed by the committee last year. In fact, Senator Alexander introduced his own legislation to reauthorize ESEA that limited the role of the federal government in advancing education reform.

The HELP Committee will also have at least one new Democrat due to the retirement of Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), a strong champion of both high school reform and the use of technology to strengthen education.

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor-Health and Human Services (HHS)-Education is only likely to undergo minor changes. Democrats and Republicans will likely have at least one new member each due to the retirement of Senators Herb Kohl (D-WI) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX).

U.S. House of Representatives

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor-HHS-Education, however, will change more substantively. Three of the subcommittee’s eight members will not be returning to the House. Chairman Dennis Rehberg (R-MT) lost his run for the Senate; veteran House appropriator Jerry Lewis (R-CA) is retiring; and Congressman Jeff Flake (R-AZ) won his bid for the Senate. The subcommittee’s Democrats are unlikely to change.

The leadership of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce will remain the same in the next session of Congress. Therefore, the policy that emerges from this committee next year will be very similar to the policy passed by the committee this year. This spring, it is very reasonable to expect the committee to pass legislation reauthorizing ESEA that is virtually identical to the legislation it passed in February 2012, which limited the role of the federal government in education policy, consolidated several education programs into a block grant to states, and did not include language pertaining specifically to college- and career-ready standards.

The composition of the committee will change more than the policy it produces. On the republican side, two moderate Republicans will be leaving the committee; Congressman Todd Platts (R-PA) is retiring and Representative Judy Biggert (R-IL) was defeated in her reelection campaign. These members will likely be replaced by more conservative members.

On the other side of the aisle, several new members will replace members who are leaving the House. Two Democratic committee members, Representatives Dale Kildee (D-MI) and Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) have retired. Two additional members lost their primary elections: Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Jason Altmire (D-PA). Representative Mazie Hirono (D-HI) will be leaving the House to join the Senate.

State-Level Policy Landscape


State election results were mixed for both Democrats and Republicans. Prior to the elections, Republicans held twenty-nine governorships, Democrats held twenty, with one governor (RI) an Independent. Of the eleven gubernatorial races this year, Republicans picked up the open North Carolina office (former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory); held on to the open seat in Indiana (Rep. Mike Pence); and saw incumbents in North Dakota (Jack Dalrymple) and Utah (Gary Herbert) win. Democrats held on to the open offices in New Hampshire (former state senator Maggie Hassan), Montana (Attorney General Steve Bullock), and likely Washington (Congressman Jay Inslee). Democrats also saw incumbents get reelected in Delaware (Jack Markell), Vermont (Peter Shumlin), West Virginia (Earl Ray Tomblin), and Missouri (Jay Nixon). As of now, it appears Republicans will have thirty of the nation’s governorships.

State Legislatures

At the state legislative level, Democrats made gains. Prior to the elections, fifty-nine legislative chambers were held by Republicans, thirty-six by Democrats, three tied, and one nonpartisan unicameral. After the elections, fifty-five chambers remained in republican control, forty-one in Democratic control, one tied, one undecided, and one nonpartisan unicameral.

Democrats took back the Minnesota House and Senate, putting that state firmly in their hold with the Democratic governor. Democrats saw the Colorado House, which had a 33–32 republican majority, switch to a democratic majority. In Oregon, the tied Senate went Democratic, and in New York, the Republicans appeared to have lost control of the state Senate. The Maine House and Senate went to the Democrats.

Republicans took control of the Arkansas House and Senate for the first time since Reconstruction Era. And after all of the recall battles during the last year, Republicans took back control of the Wisconsin Senate and ended a tie in the Alaska Senate.

State Education Chiefs

In four states, chief state school officers were running for reelection. In the three states with democratic incumbents, they prevailed. However, to the surprise of many, the chief with the highest national profile and arguably the most outspoken chief in support of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), republican Tony Bennett in Indiana was defeated. Bennett has been a major player on the national scene and a leader among the Chiefs for Change, and his defeat is seen as a blow for the reform movement. He was defeated by Glenda Ritz, an elementary school media specialist who was heavily backed by teachers who oppose the reform agenda Bennett helped to put in place in the state. That agenda includes teacher evaluation, choice, vouchers, CCSS, the A-F accountability model, and takeover of struggling schools. Of his defeat, Bennett noted Ritz’s courting of conservatives by raising concerns about the CCSS representing federal intrusion into education. He also expressed concern about the state’s commitment to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers consortium under Ritz’s leadership, though there is a question about how much Ritz will be able to dial back recent reforms given legislative and state board actions made to put them in place.

A hotly contested campaign in North Carolina saw Democrat June Atkinson return for a third term despite the state having voted for Governor Mitt Romney and Republicans winning the governorship and seats in the General Assembly. She defeated republican John Tedesco.

In Montana, democratic incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau defeated republican challenger Sandy Welch. Juneau, who made history in 2008 when she became the first American Indian woman to hold an executive position in Montana’s government, focused her campaign on efforts to decrease the dropout rate and support the CCSS while Welch campaigned on the need for more choice and charters in public schools.

In Washington state, democratic incumbent Randy Dorn ran unopposed in the general election.

Ballot Initiatives

  • Charters: Georgia residents voted to establish a statewide commission to authorize charter schools and to override the will of the local school board. Currently, local school boards can approve charter school applications and if the applications are rejected by local school boards, applicants can turn to the state’s Board of Education.

In Washington state, which until now has not permitted charter schools, citizens voted to permit authorization of charter schools by either the local school board or by a state commission.

  • Digital learning: In Idaho, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna was dealt a major defeat with residents voting to repeal three pieces of legislation adopted in 2011. Proposition 1 corresponded to teachers’ collective bargaining rights; proposition 2 dealt with the imposition of a new merit-pay bonus system for teachers based in part on students test scores; and Proposition 3 pertained to the rewrite of the school funding formula to accommodate a technology push, including laptops for every high school student and a new focus on online learning.
  • DREAM Act: In Maryland, the Dream Act was upheld, which will allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at community colleges—and in some cases at four year institutions—if they register for the Selective Service System and show intent to apply for permanent residency.
  • Funding: California approved Proposition 30 to increase personal income taxes on earnings over $250,000 for seven years. Gov. Brown said rejection would cause huge midyear cuts to K–12 education.
  • Teacher evaluation: South Dakota voters rejected by 68 percent Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s education reform law, which sought to overhaul the way South Dakota public schools evaluate and reward their teachers by providing bonuses to all competent math and science teachers as well as those who rate as best in their district or take on a leadership role. Half of every teacher’s rating was to be based on tests scores or other quantifiable measures of student achievement, a major point of contention for the teachers union. The law also would have phased out job protection for veteran teachers. Because the new system had been approved by the board of education and is part of the state’s waiver from key provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, it is unclear whether districts will still be required to follow it. Supporting the law and contributing to the campaign was StudentsFirst, a national education reform organization led by Michelle Rhee.


The 2012 elections are over, and it is time to get to work. The to-do list is substantial: (1) expand opportunities for deeper learning; (2) ensure implementation of college- and career-ready standards; (3) maintain education investments and target them toward reform—and much more. The Alliance looks forward to the busy and important several years ahead.
Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia.


Join the Conversation

Your email is never published nor shared.

What is this?
Add 9 to 12 =
The simple math problem you are being asked to solve is necessary to help block spam submissions.



Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.