Reading the Tea Leaves in the Swing Districts: What the 2010 Midterms May Mean for Education on Capitol Hill

Education has a long tradition of bipartisanship in Washington. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has cited it when explaining his optimism that the Obama administration will succeed next year in moving ESEA reauthorization, winning extension of the Race to the Top program, and pushing to support community colleges and rein in for-profit higher education.

The question of bipartisanship is likely to loom larger than ever after November 2nd, when even optimistic Democratic operatives hope merely to limit the size of Republican gains. Democratic concerns are familiar, as the President's party has lost about two dozen seats on average in midterms during the past forty years. Given the current 39-seat Democratic margin in the House of Representatives, modest Republican gains will leave Speaker Nancy Pelosi leading a narrow majority--and large Republican gains could be enough to flip control.

Some have suggested that Republican gains could actually be good for the President's education agenda. Mike Petrilli, vice-president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, has explained, "I'm optimistic about [ESEA reauthorization] in 2011...there will be an interest in finding a few issues where they can find some common ground." The notion is that Obama's support for charter schooling and value-added teacher assessment play better with centrists than with liberal House Democrats--so Republican gains, and a desire to find something both parties can work on, will create opportunities for educational deal-making.

Are things likely to work out this way? Let's look at the data. Going into Labor Day, the Cook Political Report identified 71 seats currently held by Democrats as those most likely to change hands in November. Thirty-seven of the vulnerable seats are "toss-ups," five lean Republican, and twenty-nine lean Democratic.

Who are these vulnerable Democrats? The vast majority represent districts that lean Republican in presidential elections. According to the Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI), which measures how strongly a given district favors one party, the vulnerable Democrats are in districts with a median Republican advantage of plus-four. Twenty are in districts where the Republican advantage is plus-seven or greater, while just sixteen are in districts that lean Democratic. Half represent districts in the red-state territory of the South, Mountain West, or Northern Plains.

Each year, the liberal advocacy group Americans for Democratic Action issues a scorecard that tallies how members of Congress voted on key roll calls, assigning each member a score from 0-100. Those voting in accord with ADA's liberal leanings on every vote get a 100, while those who voted the other way each time get a zero. Naturally enough, true-blue liberals get the highest scores.

The median ADA score for at-risk House Democrats is 80, compared to 95 for the Democratic caucus as a whole, suggesting that it is the more moderate members who are on the firing line. Indeed, thirty of the 71 (or more than 40%) of at-risk Democrats have ADA ratings of 75 or lower, while just thirteen of the other 179 rated Democratic House members are similarly centrist. Just four of the 71 vulnerable Democrats sit on the House Education and Labor committee, and each of those has an ADA score of 95 or higher.

Many of these lawmakers are self-professed "Blue Dog Democrats," an official caucus of moderate Dems that routinely plays a pivotal role in legislative negotiations. Indeed, 31 of the 71 at-risk seats are either held (25) or being vacated (6) by avowed members of the Blue Dog Caucus, including two of the caucus' four leaders.

In short, more than two-thirds of the moderates in the House Democratic caucus are at risk.

What happens if the most vulnerable Democratic seats--the 42 that are toss-ups or that lean Republican--change hands? First, such a shift would cede control of the House to the GOP. Second, should Republicans pick up these 42 seats, the result would be a much more liberal and homogenous Democratic caucus. Democratic losses would be concentrated in seats that are currently held by moderates. The bar charts below illustrate these potential changes. The black bars correspond to the number of Democrats in each category in the current Democratic caucus, the gray to numbers that would result if these seats changed hands.

The number of Democrats posting ADA scores of 75 or lower would plunge from 43 to 22, or from about 17 percent of the Democratic caucus to ten percent. The number of Democrats representing Republican districts would drop from 68 to 36. The Blue Dog Caucus would lose 19 of its 53 members, more than one-third of its membership.

If the Democrats and Republicans split the toss-up seats, with the Democrats winning 18 and losing 19, the Democrats will retain control of the House with a slender majority. The purple district Democrats will almost certainly give way to 2010 Republicans who intend to vote as staunch small-government conservatives on education, leaving Democrats more liberal and the Republican caucus more conservative.

At the committee level, Republican victories, coupled with key departures on the Republican side, could make bipartisanship an especially tough sell. If the Republicans take control of the Hill, ranking minority member (and staunch conservative) John Kline will take over from Chairman George Miller.

Whether or not control flips, the key House subcommittee on elementary and secondary education is likely to look quite different next year. The departure of moderate Republican Mike Castle (DE), currently the ranking member on the subcommittee, removes an important coalition-builder from the reauthorization equation. Republican Pete Hoekstra (MI), an outspoken critic of NCLB, is running for governor. Add the retirement of Republican Vern Ehlers (MI) and there are three GOP vacancies on this important subcommittee. Moreover, presuming Republicans gain committee seats, the Republican leadership may well choose to stack the committee with newly elected fiscal conservatives. There's a very real chance ESEA could become a central front in the push to curb federal spending.

And let's not forget that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's potential successor, Rep. John Boehner (OH), was an integral player in the formulation and passage of NCLB. As chair of the Education and Labor committee in 2002, Boehner--who five years earlier cosponsored a bill to abolish the Department of Education--worked closely with George Miller and Ted Kennedy to craft NCLB and went so far as to call the law the "proudest achievement" of his years in Congress. It is unclear whether Speaker Boehner would be as supportive of NCLB as he was in 2002, and where the Republicans' leader sides on reauthorization could fundamentally alter the probability for bipartisanship. The anti-government message coming from within his party suggests that the new Speaker would find efforts to downsize federal engagement in education more politically palatable than attempts to preserve the legacy of NCLB.

What Does It All Mean?

Education bipartisanship has been possible, in large part, because the stakes were small, the federal role was mostly about disbursing funds through various formulas and earmarks, and the parties rarely entangled federal education in questions of philosophical principle--meaning education deliberations were frequently isolated from broader debates. That may be less true going forward.

The Obama administration has dramatically boosted federal education spending, while both the Bush and Obama administrations markedly increased the federal role in schooling. Today's impassioned debates about school reform no longer permit members of Congress to simply sprinkle education dollars upon local districts. The growing federal educational footprint has heated up disputes over testing and teacher evaluation, all while enmeshing education in larger debates about the size of government and the role of the private sector. Conservative skepticism over government spending, Democratic attacks on for-profit providers, and the reach of federal policy may yield a degree of partisan rancor in an area heretofore known for its collegial norms. It will also be interesting to see what happens when some of the Tea Party winners encounter the push for the Common Core.

The tea leaves suggest that accomplishing the President's education policy goals post-midterm will require the administration to thread quite the needle. Freshmen Republicans who have run on anti-Obama, anti-Washington themes will be unlikely to support anything that can be regarded as a big federal education bill. Veteran members will be watching their backs in light of the primary challenges that have made news in this cycle. The Republican caucus will likely become increasingly anti-Washington in its messaging, unenthused about wonky promises that Obama's ESEA "blueprint" will actually dial back the federal role, and positively irate at plans for the feds to be more active in the worst five percent of schools.

Meanwhile, the Democratic caucus will be considerably more homogeneous, liberal, and NEA-friendly. Remaining Democrats will be less supportive of some of Secretary Duncan's favorite reforms, many of which have irked the teacher unions. Moreover, 2010 could well gut the House's klatch of centrist Democrats, the members of the caucus most inclined to work with Republicans and to support administration priorities like charter schooling and performance pay.

The odds that education bipartisanship will maintain its vaunted status in 2011 are looking bleak.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI. Andrew P. Kelly is a research fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/Bill Noll

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