What the Republican Surge Means for Education Policy

In his first press conference after last week's midterm elections, President Obama struck a conciliatory note and pledged cooperation and bipartisanship. The day after the election, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan highlighted education as an issue on which Republicans and Democrats can find common ground in the next two years.

The election left the President and the Secretary with little choice but to cooperate with Republicans: their Democratic allies in Congress and the states were taken behind the proverbial woodshed on Tuesday, losing more than 60 seats in the House, almost 700 seats in state legislatures, and 10 governorships. Education policy observers have now moved on to their second-favorite pastime: handicapping what all of this electoral turnover will mean for federal policy. The looming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the implementation of Race to the Top promises, and the ongoing fiscal crisis in the states are just a few of the questions raised by the Republican surge.

How will the results of the election shape education policymaking in the years to come? Though many observers believe that education policy is an ideal issue to promote bipartisanship, the midterm elections may have made this more difficult. The elections will produce Democratic and Republican caucuses that are more ideological and polarized than before, both of which will hinder efforts to promote bipartisanship. In addition to ideological constraints, Republican calls to freeze discretionary spending and reduce the deficit will fundamentally circumscribe what is possible in education policy.

The House and Senate: Disappearing Moderates and Increasing Polarization

The Republicans won a resounding victory by unseating more than 60 Democrats and taking control of the House of Representatives. How might this affect the prospects for edu-bipartisanship? To examine this, we look at what type of Democrats lost, using the voting score given out by the liberal interest group Americans for Democratic Action (scaled from 0-100, with 100 being the most liberal) and the partisan voting index of the congressional district, a measure of how much more a given district favored Democrats or Republicans in the last two presidential elections.

On the day before the election, Charlie Cook rated 97 Democratic seats as at-risk (either Leaning Democratic, Toss-up, Leaning Republican, or Likely Republican). These at-risk Democrats were considerably more moderate than the rest of the Democratic caucus, boasting a mean ADA score of about 82, compared to 90 for the entire Democratic caucus. On average, threatened Democrats represented districts that favored Republicans by about 3 percentage points (R+2.7), while the average PVI for the entire Democratic caucus was about D+9.

Which of these Democrats lost? As you might expect, it was the moderates who took the brunt of the Republican surge. The Democratic seats that went Republican had an average ADA rating of 78.4, and the districts were decidedly Republican-leaning, with a PVI of R+4.8. Twenty-nine of these seats had ADA scores of 75 or less, representing 2/3 of the Democrats with a moderate ADA score. Of the 54 members in the fiscally conservative "Blue Dog" Democrat caucus, 28 lost outright, and four are still locked in tight elections.

The resulting group of Democrats, then, will be more liberal and more homogeneous, and will represent a more liberal collection of districts. Once we subtract out the 64 seats that went over to the Republicans, the new Democratic caucus has an average ADA score of about 94, almost five percentage points higher than it was in the last session. The average PVI among remaining Democrats increases to a whopping D+13; just 16 remaining Democrats represent districts that lean toward the Republican Party.

The elimination of these moderates, coupled with the surge of fiscally conservative, small-government Republicans, will make the 112th House a much more polarized place. There will be far fewer members occupying the "middle ground" between the partisan poles.

In the Senate, the Democrats dodged a few major bullets and managed to hang on to a slim majority. Harry Reid (NV), Michael Bennet (CO), and Patty Murray (WA) all appear to have come from behind to win their races. Murray is well-known for her backing of education-related funding, while Bennet is one of the Obama Administration's closest allies on education and occupies an important seat on the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP).

What do these returns mean for education policy, particularly the looming reauthorization of ESEA? For one thing, bipartisanship on education in the House may be difficult to come by. The new Democratic caucus in the lower chamber--more uniformly liberal than its predecessor--may be less inclined to embrace the President's reform-minded education priorities like charter schools and teacher incentives. Recall that the majority of House Democrats voted for an Edu-jobs bill that would have skimmed money from Race to the Top, the charter school development program, and the Teacher Incentive Fund, prompting centrist Senators to break with their party and the President to issue a veto threat.

Across the aisle, a new Republican majority elected on a small-government, deficit-cutting platform will not have much of an appetite for a large-scale expansion of federal education policy. Republicans have already promised to return non-defense discretionary spending to its pre-2007 levels, which will leave very few dollars to grease the wheels in a reauthorization of ESEA. For his part, John Kline (R-MN), the new chair of the House education committee, has signaled that his committee will focus on conducting investigations of education and workforce development programs and on education policies that increase local control and empower parents. His first statement made no mention of ESEA, but Kline has previously argued for a serious re-thinking of NCLB's focus on Adequate Yearly Progress. He has also expressed concern about the link between RTT and the Common Core standards, an effort that congressional Republicans have greeted with considerable skepticism.

With the House under Republican control, the administration will likely focus on the Senate (and the HELP committee in particular) as its venue of choice to shape an ESEA reauthorization. As such, the apparent come-from-behind wins by HELP committee members Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Michael Bennet could be serendipitous for the administration. Moderates like Murkowski and Bennet are well-situated to serve as coalition-builders in any reauthorization negotiation, and Bennet's sympathy for Secretary Duncan's education goals is well-known. Still, Republican gains in the upper chamber have made securing the sixty votes necessary to overcome a filibuster that much more difficult for Senate Democrats; whereas in August they needed to convince moderates Olympia Snowe and/or Susan Collins to support their legislation, the sixtieth Senator will now be considerably more conservative.

In short, is not clear that the President's reform priorities--charter schools, merit pay, and the Common Core--will be all that appealing to either of the ideological poles in the Congress. And the moderate lawmakers who might have made up the core of a bipartisan coalition around these priorities in the House are almost extinct after last week. Finding an education policy package that satisfies the President, his liberal co-partisans, and a newly-energized group of conservative members will be a tall order.

What Now?

On November 3, when asked whether education was an issue that could "unite" Democrats and Republicans, Secretary Duncan told Politico:

"If we can do that work together through education, it actually might help to lessen some of those tensions in other areas as well… Maybe our work together can help soothe some of those hurt feelings."[1]

While the Secretary is correct in remarking that education has traditionally been a policy area on which Republicans and Democrats have found common ground, bipartisanship is fundamentally about members of the two opposing parties agreeing on something. This becomes much more difficult when the parties are ideologically polarized and there are few moderates occupying the middle ground. And though education policy has often transcended traditional ideological divisions, in the last two years the issue has been routinely dragged into broader debates about the appropriate role of government and the need for fiscal discipline that divide the parties today.

Republicans may have an opportunity to promote their own education policy agenda. Survey data from the pre-election period suggest that voters trust the Republicans on education more than they trust Democrats.[2] It is possible that the President and the Republicans could work together on education, much the way President Clinton worked with Republicans on welfare reform in the mid-1990s. However, the GOP has shown little inclination to grab this bull by the horns, failing to even mention education in its "Pledge to America" policy document. Many Republican candidates went so far as to campaign on the tried-and-true "abolish the Department of Education" platform, much to the chagrin of right-of-center education reformers looking for a more proactive approach to education policy.[3]

With the 2012 presidential election just two short years away, ideological polarization on the rise, and federal budget deficits at an all-time high, the prospects for a significant bipartisan education bill that reauthorizes ESEA, let alone one that remedies many of the flaws in No Child Left Behind, are probably slim. While bipartisanship will be critical to any progress on this front, last week's elections have made it much more difficult to come by

Andrew P. Kelly is a research fellow at AEI.

Photo credit: Bigstock/gdhathaway


1. Quoted in Kendra Marr, "Arne Duncan: Education Can Be Bipartisan." POLITICO, November 3, 2010.

2. Rasmussen Reports, "Voters Trust Republicans More on 8 of 10 Issues," October 18, 2010. http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/mood_of_america/trust_on_issues

3. Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli, "Would a Republican Congress Be Good For Education Reform?" The Education Gadfly, Thomas B. Fordham Institute. September 23, 2010. http://www.edexcellence.net/flypaper/index.php/2010/09/would-a-republican-congress-be-good-for-school-reform/

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