As the newly elected Congress convenes this month in Washington, D.C., school leaders and education advocates will be watching the proceedings with great interest: 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.
Aong the many issues that could be influenced by the election results are college loan interest rates, 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 through 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 are encouraged by the ascension of what they view 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 following the elections. “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. … Democrats now have an opportunity to translate the priorities they campaigned on into legislation and programs.” Democrats rolled up gains of nearly 30 seats in the House and now control 51 of the 100 Senate seats as well, taking power 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, could 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 this 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 educational technology and other school 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 aimed to cut education funding by more than $3 billion and eliminate ed-tech funding altogether (see story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=6146).
House Democrats, however, have favored spending more on education than the Republicans who have controlled Congress throughout the Bush administration, which could bode well for schools in the new legislative session. The 109th Congress adjourned last month without reaching an agreement on the 2007 education budget, leaving that task to incoming legislators.
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: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?Article ID=5978). 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 is expected to 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 elections, 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.
What the Democrats’ win means for tech
A Democratic majority in Congress also could result in a significant shift in tech-related policies for addressing issues such as net neutrality, digital copyright rules, and more.
In an 11-11 tie, a Republican-controlled Senate committee narrowly failed last summer to endorse new rules that would have ensured “net neutrality,” or the idea that all internet traffic be treated the same way, no matter what its source or destination might be. (See story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=6378.) A similar net-neutrality measure also failed in the House.
Supporters of the measure–which included internet content providers such as Google and Amazon, as well as education and consumers’ rights groups–argued that internet service providers could give preferential treatment to business partners or use pricing and access limits to discriminate between web sites and other internet users. Phone companies have talked about creating a “two-tiered” system in which users of their networks, including schools and other web site operators, who desire faster service for the delivery of broadband or voice-over-IP applications would have to pay more. Those who couldn’t pay would be relegated to the internet “slow lane.”
Phone and cable companies argued the proposal would stifle investment in broadband technology by restricting what they could charge customers. Both sides have spent millions of dollars on lobbying and advertising on the issue.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which writes telecommunications laws, argued against interfering in a system that so far has worked well without government regulation. In the new Congress, however, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, the ranking Democrat who is set to assume chairmanship, supports network neutrality.
Over in the House, the former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is Rep. Joe Barton, a Republican from AT&T’s home state of Texas. Barton has consistently opposed net neutrality, as has Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who chairs the Internet and Technology subcommittee.
By contrast, Rep. John Dingell, also of Michigan and who will assume the chairmanship in the new Congress, has been sympathetic to net neutrality proponents. And Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who would take over the Internet and Technology subcommittee, wrote an unsuccessful net neutrality amendment in the House and has made the issue a top priority.
Dingell also is expected to live up to his reputation as a tough overseer of the agencies that answer to his committee, such as the Federal Communications Commission, according to an Associated Press report.