This article appeared in the Winter 2018-19 edition of The Classroom Teacher.

Democrats in House could bring changes to federal education policy

The November election brought a record number of eligible voters to the polls — over 115 million ballots were cast. The election recorded the highest midterm voter turnout since 1914, an average of 49 percent of eligible voters, with five states recording over 60 percent of eligible voters (Minnesota, Colorado, Montana, Oregon and Wisconsin). Midterm elections typically average 36-40 percent of eligible voters, and turnout is generally in favor of the opposing party to the president. As a point of reference, in 2010 under President Barack Obama’s first term, Democrats lost 63 seats in the House.

The 2018 election saw Democrats win control of the House of Representatives, picking up 39 seats, while Republicans increased their Senate majority by three. When the 116th Congress is seated in January, there will be 235 Democrats and 200 Republicans in the House. In the Senate, there will be 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats. The Democratic House majority was propelled in part by female candidates. The 116th Congress will hold a record-breaking number of women, 124 in total. There will be 36 new female members in the House and five in the Senate.   

The midterm election also increased the House Congressional Progressive Caucus ranks to historic levels — the group is expected to have more than 95 members in the 116th Congress. These progressive Democrats, the most left-leaning faction, will represent 40 percent of all Democrats and could play a decisive role in crafting or impeding legislation, especially when they vote en bloc. Similar to the Republican Freedom Caucus, this coalition could be problematic for potential Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) who will also need to negotiate with a Republican-controlled Senate and White House.

Teacher candidates

Early this year, teachers in several states walked out of their classrooms to demand better pay and increases in public school funding. Most of these protests were successful — teachers and their supporters saw positive outcomes from their demonstrations and this fueled educator activism. It was reported that a large number of teachers, at least 177, filed to run for state legislative seats in 2018. Forty-three won. On a federal level, five of the freshmen members elected to the next congress worked in education or were teachers. A former national Teacher of the Year and district administrator, Jahana Hayes successfully ran for Connecticut’s 5th congressional district as a Democrat. Her campaign platform featured her personal educational experience in a low-performing school and a pledge to secure more resources, support and training for teachers. Should her committee assignment place her on the education panel, she will bring her passion and commitment to advocate for educators.

Legislative agenda

Democrats are expected to have a full legislative agenda when the 116th Congress convenes. First, Democrats will adopt a new House rules package that will outline how members can more fully participate in the legislative process. This will address expanding the availability for members outside of committees to interject and provide for a more balanced opportunity for amendments to be considered. In the first quarter, House Democrats will need to wrap up any Fiscal Year 2019 appropriations measures that spilled over into the new year. Leading up to leadership elections, over 45 freshmen Democrats requested that the leadership team prioritize legislative action over agency oversight, although committee chairs will certainly want to investigate agency actions. Priority issues that Democrats have cited include health care and prescription drug costs, investments in infrastructure, immigration, gun safety, the environment, and criminal justice reform. Regarding immigration, Pelosi has vowed to quickly take up DACA legislation that would place young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children on a pathway to citizenship. Infrastructure investments and prescription drug costs are two issues that could entice Republicans and President Donald Trump to work with Democrats.

Education policy

The incoming chairman of the House education committee, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), has referenced several priorities that he will pursue in his chamber in the upcoming year. His Democratic education agenda will focus on educational equity and achievement, increasing college enrollment and completion, several higher education policies — including public service loan forgiveness provisions, teacher preparation programs, and student loan protections — and most certainly a heightened focus on civil rights. The U.S. Department of Education’s proposed rule changes to Title IX will be challenged as will agency attempts to dismantle Obama-era regulations on the for-profit education sector.

In K-12 education, a measure to establish federal standards that would end seclusion and curtail the use of restraint will be debated. The Keeping All Students Safe Act has been reintroduced in the House (H.R. 7124) and Senate (S. 3626) by key Democrats on the education committees. One provision requires that any personnel conducting restraint be certified by a state-approved crisis intervention training program.

Under the Obama administration, federal efforts to improve struggling public schools, such as Race To The Top and School Improvement Grants, failed to produce measurable gains in math or reading results, high school graduation or college enrollment. The recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, put the responsibility for turning around low-performing schools into the hands of state and local officials. Democrats cried foul with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ perceived rubber stamp of state accountability plans, and this is an area where House Democrats likely will hold oversight hearings. There will not be a concerted effort for wholesale K-12 policies changes — the next few years will be a time for states and districts to take control and focus on improving practices and engagement with community stakeholders.