How a Divided Congress Will Influence K-12 Education Policy

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2023 will give a new slate of lawmakers the chance to influence federal education policies when freshly elected members of Congress assume their offices Jan. 3.

A reshuffling of leadership in congressional education committees will mean shifting priorities for education policy with a potential focus on career and technical education, universal pre-kindergarten, parents’ rights policies, and student loan forgiveness.

The two chambers’ priorities could differ markedly because Republicans seized control of the U.S. House of Representatives, while Democrats maintained a hold on the U.S. Senate.

Members of the House Committee on Education and Labor and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (otherwise known as the HELP committee) have the power to review and recommend changes to education-related legislation, programs, and policies.

In the House, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., is expected to assume leadership as the chair of the committee on education and labor. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., currently the chair, will likely switch places with Foxx, becoming the ranking member.

There will also be changes to the Senate HELP committee leadership after Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., steps down as chair of the committee to lead the Senate Appropriations Committee. Democrats use seniority to determine the person next in line to chair the committee, meaning Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., will likely take over.

But even with changes at the committee level, education is not likely to see much action from the federal government with a divided congress.

“It looks like a stalemate,” said David Bloomfield, an education law professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. “It’s unlikely there will be any legislative progress on the Democrats’ agenda. It’s not even clear what the Republicans’ agenda will be in an affirmative sense.”

Where Republicans and Democrats might find common ground

Sanders, who is known for his commitment to universal access to education and health care, is likely to push for universal free college, efforts to bolster the teacher pipeline, dual-enrollment programs, and expansion of early childhood education.

As a member of the HELP committee, Sanders has advocated for increased funding of Title II of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which authorizes state grants to recruit, train, and support teachers, principals, and other educators.

The most far-reaching of Sanders’ policies, such as his College for All Plan, are not likely to pass through a divided congress. But he may be able to have some influence in the expansion of early childhood education programs, like universal pre-K, and dual-enrollment or college programs, and efforts to improve teacher retention and pay.

That all depends on his willingness to compromise, something Sanders isn’t known for, said David DeSchryver, senior vice president and co-director of research at Whiteboard Advisors, a communications, research, and consulting firm dedicated to advancing educational equity and economic mobility. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who is poised to be the HELP committee’s ranking member, is less likely to move to right-leaning extremes, meaning the door is open for compromise, DeSchryver said.

“There’s some opportunity to find common ground,” DeSchryver said. “Now whether Bernie wants to find common ground, that’s going to be an interesting question. But you may find something when it comes to workforce development [and] career and technical education.”

Sanders’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Foxx, in the House, has also expressed a commitment to career and technical education and apprenticeship programs.

“There’s clearly a crack in the education to workforce pipeline,” Foxx said in a general speech prior to the start of legislative business on Nov. 16. “The best way to address our country’s skills gap and worker shortage is to promote workforce programs that actually work.”

The future of parents’ rights

Foxx is also known for her support of conservative parents’ rights policies that have become popular among state-level Republican politicians. Such policies give parents the power to approve, amend, or reject curricula they feel don’t align with their values.

Often, the policies have been used to limit how teachers can discuss so-called divisive topics like race, gender, and sexuality. Last year, Foxx supported H.R. 6056, a federal Parents Bill of Rights Act, which would require local education agencies to publicly post the curriculum for each elementary and secondary school grade level and require schools to notify parents and guardians of a right to review the school’s curriculum and budget. The bill has not passed the House.

“With Republicans in control of the House, we will defend parental rights and ensure students’ best interests don’t play second fiddle to the demands of teachers’ unions,” Foxx said in a statement on Dec. 2. “Republicans of the Committee on Education and the Workforce will work tirelessly to reaffirm parents’ right to guide their child’s education and ensure that students have every opportunity to reach their potential.”

Other Republican House members, Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., and Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., who could become chair of the education committee if Foxx doesn’t take it, also support the federal parental bill of rights.

But it’s extremely unlikely that the bill would win over Democrats in the Senate and pass through Congress; most oppose the parental rights proposals. Parents’ rights candidates in local and statewide elections had lukewarm results during the midterms, which indicates it would be a tricky issue to pass on a federal level.

“It doesn’t seem like [parents’ rights] really got a lot of traction during the midterms,” Bloomfield said. “It seems to be a state-based issue if it continues to be an issue at all.”

More oversight of the Biden Administration

The shifting power in Congress will also likely mean more obstacles for the U.S. Department of Education.

Since President Joe Biden took office in 2021, the Education Department has introduced a number of policy changes that lean toward the Democrats’ agenda. In June, the department released proposed changes to Title IX, the federal sex discrimination law, that would add explicit protections for LGBTQ students. The department also implemented changes to the federal Charter Schools Program, making it more difficult for for-profit charter management companies to receive federal grant funding. And, most notable of all, the department established a federal student loan forgiveness program to cancel up to $20,000 in debt; the program is currently on pause after being challenged in federal court.

Republicans, including Foxx, oppose those efforts. Foxx plans to push back on the department’s rulemaking for Title IX and to conduct oversight of the student loan program, which she has called “destructive and illegal,” according to representatives of her office. But it will be easier for the Democratic agenda to move forward with Democratic control of the Senate.

“The present Democratic agenda will move forward because of a stalemate in Congress,” Bloomfield said. “There might have been more difficulty if Republicans won the Senate as well as the House, but a [piece of the] pie goes to the administration and the executive branch. In that sense, Biden won’t have to use his veto pen because Sanders and the Democratic majority in the Senate will keep any extreme measures from passing.”

DeSchryver doesn’t see the Education Department “taking its foot off the gas” when it comes to LGBTQ issues, equity, or pandemic relief funding even if the House decides to place an emphasis on oversight of the department.

“The Department of Education and this administration is certainly going to hold firm when it comes to LGBTQ issues and equity issues, and they still have a lot of work ahead of them in providing guidance and support in school districts using ESSER funds,” DeSchryver said.

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