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GOP victories could affect education funding, ed tech

The Republican majority in the House could lead to cuts in education funding, some observers fear.

Riding a wave of voter discontent about the state of the economy, Republicans drew on the support of independents and the energy of Tea Party activists to fashion a resounding victory in the House of Representatives during the Nov. 2 midterm elections, altering the balance of power in Washington, D.C., in ways that are likely to affect both federal education funding and local ed-tech programs.

Incomplete returns showed the GOP picked up at least 60 House seats—the biggest party turnover in more than 70 years—and led in four more races, far in excess of what was needed for a majority. About two dozen races remained too close to call as of press time.

Republicans also increased their strength in the Senate and quickly served notice they intend to challenge President Barack Obama with a more conservative fiscal approach.

“We hope President Obama will now respect the will of the people, change course, and … commit to making changes they are demanding,” Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, told cheering partisans as GOP gains mounted throughout the night.

Republican control of the House means Boehner will be the new House speaker in January, and chairmanship of the various House committees will shift to Republicans as well. That puts Minnesota Rep. John Kline in line to succeed Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., as chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor; Kline, the senior Republican member of the committee, defeated Democratic challenger Shelley Madore in Minnesota’s 2nd District.

Kline has supported an increase in federal education funding to help teach students with special needs. In a 2009 op-ed piece, he noted that the government pledged to spend up to 40 percent of the cost of special-education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—but federal IDEA spending has fallen far short of this target amount.

“Since 1975, we have never met that promise. In fact, we have never even come close,” he wrote. “Even with this year’s one-time boost in stimulus funding, which will disappear in a little more than a year, we still fall far short of our guarantee.”

Yet Kline favors fully funding IDEA before spending on any new education programs, such as initiatives that would support early childhood education, job training, and school construction that House Democrats passed last year.

“While these new programs may be beneficial, we have not seen evidence of their success,” he wrote. “Challenging economic times are not the time for new and expensive experiments that siphon funds from existing programs and impose massive, unfunded mandates on state and local school officials. Instead, we should devote our limited resources … to those programs with which schools are already required by law to comply.”

Chairmanship of the House appropriations committee, which has enormous influence over what lawmakers ultimately agree to spend on education funding, will shift from Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., to an as-yet undisclosed Republican. Rep. Jerry Lewis of California is the ranking Republican member of the committee, but some media reports are speculating that the chairmanship could go to Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky instead.

Obey had been a strong advocate for education funding and the need for 21st-century skills, pushing for more education funding for items such as student aid and after-school programs. He also defended the need for the federal stimulus package, which provided a one-time boost of more than $100 billion for education—including $650 million for ed tech.

Rogers, too, has spoken of the need for better education. “In today’s modern world, we must ensure that students not only have the fundamental building blocks of an education—such as reading, writing, and arithmetic—but that they also have the technological skills to compete for the jobs of the future,” his web site states.

Rogers has helped steer federal education funding to projects such as CenterNET2, an interactive video conferencing network that is being used to connect schools and educators throughout Kentucky, creating a statewide virtual education community. But, like every one of his Republican colleagues in the House, Rogers also voted against the federal stimulus package that has saved thousands of education jobs.

As House speaker, Boehner has promised to “[cut] spending instead of increasing it, [make] government smaller and more accountable, and [help] small businesses get back to creating jobs again.” His leadership could result in across-the-board cuts in the House versions of appropriations bills, including cuts to federal education funding—setting up a possible showdown over education funding with President Obama and the Democratic Senate.

Federal lawmakers have yet to pass a budget for fiscal year 2011, which began Oct. 1. Lawmakers enacted a continuing resolution that funds federal programs at FY10 spending levels, but this resolution expires in early December. That means the lame-duck Congress will have to reconvene and either “muster together an omnibus [spending] bill prior to adjournment,” or pass another continuing resolution to fund all of fiscal 2011 at FY10 levels, said Hilary Goldmann, director of government affairs for the International Society for Technology in Education.

At this point, it looks like the latter option might be more likely, Goldmann said, as there has been “no agreement on what the top line [spending] for FY11 even should be.”

A continuing resolution covering all of FY11 would fund the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) block-grant program—the largest single source of federal ed-tech funding—at $100 million for the year, a much smaller amount than in the years prior to FY10. Lawmakers funded EETT at $100 million last year because the stimulus package provided an additional $650 million for ed tech in 2009 and 2010, but now that stimulus money is gone.

Looking beyond FY11, Goldmann said ed-tech leaders are concerned about the prospects for future education funding.

“We’ve been successful in keeping bipartisan support for ed tech” in the past, she said. But the new Republican leadership in the House promises to focus on deficit reduction—and “no one has identified where these cuts are going to come from. … At this point, everything’s on the table.”

General technology policy

The resurgence of a Republican majority in the House also could affect general technology policy, especially when it comes to net neutrality—the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) should not be allowed to discriminate against certain types of traffic flowing over their lines.

In September, House Republicans rejected a bill that would have have forbidden ISPs to “unjustly or unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful traffic over a consumer’s wireline broadband internet access service.” The bill also would have given the FCC some “case-by-case” fine-making authority (up to $2 million per incidence). The bill—which was “an interim measure to protect net neutrality while Congress considers a permanent solution,” according to House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif.—would have denied the FCC any authority to regulate ISPs as common carriers, and it excluded wireless broadband from the scenario.

With a Republican majority, net neutrality now seems like a dead issue. House Republicans could block any Senate attempts to deal with the topic, and if the FCC were to act on its own, the House could hold hearings to questions the agency’s actions and use the federal appropriations process to limit its operating funds.

The election results also will alter the leadership of key technology and telecommunications committees. Rep. Rick Boucher, the Virginia Democrat who headed the House Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, lost his reelection bid to challenger Morgan Griffith and won’t serve in the next Congress. Boucher had been at the forefront of the online privacy debate and had led efforts to free up airwaves for more mobile phone and data use.

The ranking Republican member of the telecom subcommittee, Rep. Cliff Stears of Florida, is in line to be the new chairman. Stearns collaborated with Boucher earlier this year on a bill that would protect internet users’ privacy, and so that issue might remain on the legislative agenda if he’s the new subcommittee chairman.

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