Republicans took control of the Senate on Tuesday night, winning at least seven seats from Democrats and expanding their hold on the House. The new majorities could mean a major reshuffling of funding priorities for social service programs.
At the top of the list for education policy is a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as the No Child Left Behind law. ESEA is important because it sets federal education policy and acts as the overriding guidance for ED funding.
State officials are increasingly frustrated with the Obama administration’s waivers from key provisions of NCLB, and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the likely chair of the Senate education committee, has never been an NCLB fan. Republicans generally see the NCLB as too federally intrusive, and the House passed several bills to dismantle it. Those bills, however, failed to move in the Senate.
A previous ESEA rewrite authored by Alexander would significantly scale back the federal role in K-12 ed, allowing states to devise their own accountability plans and eliminate the federal role in requiring states to set specific student-achievement goals, or in identifying a certain percentage of schools as low-performing. Schools would still be required to test students in reading and math in grades 3-8, as well as once in high school, and then report the results, including for subgroups of students such as English-language learners and those in special education. Transparency would become the main lever for school improvement.
But, it will be difficult to run through a GOP-only ESEA rewrite. Senate rules give the minority considerable leverage to block legislation, and all bills need some bipartisan support to proceed. Alexander, former secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, has been steadfast in eliminating ED influence on classroom matters without a compromise on K-12 policy. With no Democratic support, the ESEA rewrite could be doomed from the start. And, the GOP in the Senate is hardly a big tent, with tea partiers pushing hard at the Republican establishment.
Lamar will have to deal with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who authored legislation in 2011 to lop off $500 billion in federal spending and eliminate of the entire Education Dept. (ED). The bill also recommended a $26.5 billion cut to programs administered through the Health & Human Services Dept. The bill would cut funding at the Indian Health Services by 62% and at the Health Resources and Services Administration by 34%.
Obviously, the bill went nowhere. Even Ronald Reagan, who famously proselytized the belief that “government doesn’t solve problems, it is the problem,” couldn’t stomach eliminating ED. But, it does give a window into the playing field for next year’s Senate budget conference.
Congress will probably use the budget process to try to eliminate the Obama administration’s favorite competitive-grant programs: Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, and the SIG program, under which school districts compete within states for school turnaround money.
GOP lawmakers in the House have tried for the past few years to scrap those programs, but Senate Democrats always stood in their way. Alexander has talked about turning that funding, about $500 million a year, into block grants to be distributed equally to the states. Such a distribution would mean about $3,500 a year to each school district in the country, not nearly enough to spur reforms or really buy enough art supplies for the year.
And, there is some sentiment that those programs will be funded next year in some form. They are widely popular in the states, and even the harshest Race to the Top critics have begun to sing their praises as the money flows. The larger question is what will they be replaced with? Absent the three big competitive grants programs, there is no financial incentive for education reforms; cash-strapped school districts will still need some outside funding to improve classroom instruction.
Child welfare funding could also be impacted. House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) this year unveiled a new anti-poverty proposal that would mandate performance contracts for families that receive government benefits. The discussion draft, titled “Expanding Opportunity in America,” highlights the economic and social achievement gaps between low-income children and families and their wealthier peers. It largely tracks provisions included in Ryan’s 2015 budget resolution. Ryan’s proposals for early-childhood education include converting Head Start and the Child Care and Development Fund into a block grant.
Entitlement efforts would be merged into a pilot program called the “Opportunity Grant,” which offers states the ability to use the funds they currently get for a range of programs to help needy individuals. Specific funding levels were not discussed in the blueprint, but it was intended to be a budget-neutral plan that would not shrink the federal funding stream supporting the current anti-poverty efforts. The Opportunity Grant would consolidate several existing aid programs into one money pot for the states. Participants would each be paired with an individual case worker, with whom they would agree on personalized short and long-term goals set out in “contracts.” They would have to sign the contracts in order to remain eligible for social safety net benefits like food stamps (or SNAP).
Exit polls showed voters were angry about the less-than-robust economic recovery, annoyed with the president and dissatisfied with government grid-lock in Washington. In reality, this was part of the political cycle that saw Democrats capture the Senate in 2006 in the mid-term elections at the end of the Bush administration.
This time, Democrats were working of a map heavily tilted toward Republicans in states like West Virginia, South Dakota, Montana, Arkansas and Alaska. The country will still have a two-party system for the last two years of the Obama presidency, and he will be disinclined to sign any bill that exists only on a tea party wish list, like dismantling ED.
The Grant Advisors note that absent in the post-election talk has been any discussion of impeachment or Obamacare repeal that were hot button touchstones in the run up to the mid-terms. GOP leadership has been careful of any legislative over-reach, mindful that congressional approval ratings fall far behind those of the president. And, if history is any guide, the GOP may pull a page from the 2006 handbook when Democrats spent the last two years of the Bush administration harassing the president and preparing for the next presidential election.