Updated: Democratic victories in the Nov. 7 elections have shaken up the balance of power in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, bringing what are sure to be several changes that will affect schools.

Among the many issues that could be influenced by the election results are college loan interest, workforce preparedness, funding for educational technology, and the reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

The election’s true impact might not be known for a while. Even though Democrats wrested control over both chambers of Congress from Republicans, their agenda could be curtailed by the threat of a veto from President Bush.

Still, many education groups were encouraged by the ascension of what they viewed as a more favorable climate for education funding on Capitol Hill.

“These election results are a rebuke to the Republican majority that has wielded so much political power in recent years in state and federal offices. Republican leadership has not governed with moderation and cooperation, but with extremism and exclusion, turning their backs on even the moderate members of their own party,” said Edward J. McElroy, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement.

“The party that once prided itself on fiscal restraint ran up record deficits, hampering investment in national priorities like education, and left a long-term legacy of economic recklessness,” McElroy continued. “Poor and middle-income Americans have been hit particularly hard by these policies, but their prospects look considerably better with the incoming Congress, governors, and state legislatures. For one thing, the president no longer has a rubber stamp in both houses of Congress for his misguided agenda that has shortchanged public education & Democrats now have an opportunity to translate the priorities they campaigned on into legislation and programs.”

As of press time, Democrats had rolled up gains of about 30 seats in the House and controlled 51 of the 100 Senates seats as well, taking control over both chambers of Congress for the first time in 12 years. Democratic candidates rode to victory on a wave of public discontent with the Iraq war, corruption, and Republican President George W. Bush’s leadership, among other issues.

The narrow governing majorities in Congress, especially the Senate, are likely to spawn more partisan gridlock and political warfare during Bush’s final two years in the White House.

Still, Democratic control of Congress–which will make Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California the first female House speaker in U.S. history–could open the door for changes to the legislative agenda that might favor schools.

“Tonight is a great victory for the American people,” Pelosi told a Democratic rally on Capitol Hill on the evening of the elections. “Today the American people voted for change, and they voted for Democrats to take our country in a new direction.”

Pelosi has outlined an ambitious agenda for her first 100 hours as House speaker, including the introduction of legislation to reduce interest rates on college loans, raise the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, eliminate corporate subsidies for oil companies, allow the government to negotiate lower rates for prescription drugs, and impose new lobbying restrictions.

Control of the House also means chairmanships of the various committees will fall to Democrats. Currently, the ranking Democrat on the influential House Appropriations Committee is Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, and the ranking member of House Committee on Education and the Workforce is Rep. George Miller of California.

That could have a significant impact on the legislative priorities of Congress, influencing issues down the road such as federal education funding, 21st century workforce preparedness, and the impending reauthorization of NCLB, which is expected to begin next year. Miller has been an outspoken critic of several aspects of NCLB, including what he views as its punitive approach to holding schools accountable that takes away funding from the very schools that need it most.

Federal funding for ed tech and other education programs also could see a boost. In recent years, the Republican-controlled House has passed an appropriations bill that mirrored President Bush’s budget request, which in 2007 would cut education funding by more than $3 billion and eliminate ed-tech funding altogether (see story: Bush: Cut $3.2B from education). House Democrats traditionally have favored spending more on education than Republicans, which could bode well for schools.

What’s more, the Democrats’ win could spur progress toward a five-point plan for innovation that Pelosi and other House Democrats unveiled a year ago. Aimed at boosting the competitiveness of America’s workers, the plan includes affordable access to broadband technology for all citizens and incentives for students to pursue careers in science and technology (see story: Democrats: Education is the key to reclaiming innovation). House Republicans issued a statement in response to the proposal when it was first announced, calling it an agenda of “higher taxation, litigation, and regulation.”

In the Senate, West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd is in line to assume chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy will become chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Kennedy, like Miller, was one of four lawmakers from both parties who drafted the original NCLB legislation. Like Miller, however, Kennedy believes Congress and the Bush administration have failed to live up to their pledge to provide the resources necessary to allow schools to meet the law’s strict new accountability demands.

All 435 House seats, 33 of the 100 Senate seats, and 36 of the 50 governorships were at stake in the Nov. 7 election, which also saw Democrats score huge wins in governors’ races. Democratic candidates for governor took six seats from Republicans and won a national majority that could give them an edge in the 2008 presidential election.

“This is a wake-up call to the Republican Party,” said Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona on CNN.

Links:

U.S. House of Representatives
http://www.house.gov

U.S. Senate
http://www.senate.gov