New members of Congress will likely spur movement on education bills
Republicans Will Control Senate in the 114th Congress
By Lauren Camera / Education Week November 4, 2014 11:38 P
Republicans will control the U.S. Senate during the 114th Congress thanks to wins in Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, and South Dakota, all tight and expensive races that in the end fell to conservative candidates and gave the GOP enough seats to call the chamber their own.
While divided government will remain as the White House is in Democratic hands at least until President Barack Obama finishes his second term, the new political calculation in Congress will likely spur movement on education bills, including an overhaul of the outdated No Child Left Behind Act that lessens the role of the federal government.
So who will be the major education players in the Senate next Congress? Largely, they're names you'll recognize. Ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who was re-elected on Tuesday, is set to slide into the chairman's position. And though it's not a sure bet, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., will likely take on the ranking member position as the top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, retires at the end of the year.
Alexander is known as a pragmatic politician, fond of working across the aisle. As ranking member, he collaborated with Harkin to usher through the committee several bipartisan bills, including a since-stalled reauthorization of the NCLB law, education research and child-care development bills, and a revamping of workforce training legislation, which the president signed into law over the summer. Alexander, a former U.S. Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush, has already laid out his education priorities, which include overhauling the NCLB law and tackling higher education legislation.
As my colleague, Alyson Klein pointed out in an earlier analysis of what a Republican takeover would mean for education policy, the starting point for Alexander would be a bill he introduced last year to renew the NCLB law. The plan garnered support from every GOP member of the committee, but didn't get a single Democratic cosponsor.
The measure would significantly scale back the federal role in K-12 policy, allowing states to devise their own accountability plans, among other things. As under the current law, schools would be required to test students in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and report the results, including for subgroups of students, such as English-language learners and those in special education. A similar measure passed the House without a single Democratic vote last year.
Turning to the Higher Education Act, which both chambers have made baby steps toward reauthorizing this year, Alexander has teamed up with Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., to offer one of the most comprehensive proposals.
The measure would combine two federal grant programs into one Pell Grant program and reduce the six different federal loan programs into three: one for undergraduates, one for graduates, and one for parents. It would also eliminate the cumbersome student-aid application, increase financial-aid counseling, reinstate the year-round Pell Grant, and streamline current loan-repayment plans into two: an income-contingent plan and a 10-year repayment plan.
The plan differs from the piecemeal strategy Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., is ushering through the House, and Harkin's 700-page comprehensive strategy.
The two other education policy areas that will likely be affecdted by the Republican takeover of the Senate are funding and school choice. Conservatives will almost certainly use the budget process to try to eliminate the Obama administration's favorite competitive-grant programs, such as Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, and the School Improvement Grant program. GOP lawmakers in the House have tried for the past few years to scrap those programs, but Senate Democrats have always championed them in budget negotiations. Meanwhile school choice policies have become signature issues for a number of high-profile Republican senators widely seen as having presidential aspirations, including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, both of whom have written or co-sponsored school choice bills.
Alexander also has a school choice proposal, which would allow states to take almost all of their federal K-12 funds and combine them into one giant block grant aimed at creating scholarships for low-income students that could be used at any school, private or public. In addition, he's worked with Democrats, including Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, on a bill to revamp the federal charter-school-grant program. A similar measure passed the House with bipartisan support earlier this year, but the Senate has yet to act on it.