What the 2014 Senate Elections Might Mean for Education

We’re three weeks from the midterms. There are a slew of major statehouse races that I may get around to discussing. But, to keep things simple, today I’ll offer a few thoughts on what the midterms mean for Washington. The Republicans are widely expected to keep their House majority, meaning the big question is whether they’ll be able to pick up the six seats they need to capture the U.S. Senate.

The Big Picture: Presidents have historically seen their parties get hammered in their sixth years–even popular presidents like Clinton and Reagan. And Obama is not one of those popular presidents. Currently, Obama is hovering in the low 40s, just a couple points above where Bush was in 2006 and about 20 points below where Reagan was in ’86 and Clinton was in ’98. The most recent Gallup poll reports that 44% of Republicans are extremely motivated to vote in this election, compared to just 25% of Democrats–though it’s also worth noting that Republican enthusiasm is lower than it was during the big GOP sweep in 2010. The most recent CBS News poll reports that voters say their top issues when it comes to voting for Congress are the economy (34%), health care (17%), and terrorism (16%). Education is a no-show. When asked which party will do a better job on various issues, voters pick Republicans on the economy (49-40), foreign policy (49-38), and terrorism (53-32), and Democrats on which party cares more about people like you (50-34).

The Senate: Right now, the Democrats hold the Senate 55-45. If the final tally were 50-50, VP Joe Biden would be able to break the tie for the Democrats. So, the Republicans need six more seats, in order to get to 51. What are the odds the Republicans can pick up six seats? We could get into all the permutations, but let’s keep this simple. The Republicans can pick up the six seats they need by winning empty Democratic seats in Montana, West Virginia, and South Dakota and by defeating Democratic incumbents in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alaska. Currently, Republicans appear to lead in all six. However, those Republican leads are especially tenuous in Alaska and South Dakota (where an independent run by a former GOP Senator is scrambling the board). Republicans could also lose seats they currently hold in Kansas, Georgia, or Kentucky. If that happens, the R’s would have to offset those losses by winning in Iowa, Colorado, North Carolina, or New Hampshire. Add it all up, and the fancy models currently predict that the Republicans have better than a 50-50 chance of winning the Senate (the Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage” has the odds over 90%).

Now, some may try to stir up interest in the potential impact of this or that candidate winning, due to some supposed particular interest in education. Two quick thoughts on that count. One, the biggest impact of a given race is almost always going to be in helping to determine the majority. Two, while there are exceptions, like Senators Michael Bennet or Lamar Alexander, who bring outsized expertise and credibility on education, none of the candidates in question can plausibly claim to bring anything like that.

If the Dems Hold the Senate: People who work in Washington and journalists who cover Washington like it when laws get passed. It makes them feel like they’re contributing and bearing witness to history. Keep that in mind if you see lots of ed reporters and pundits waxing optimistic about the likelihood that lots of stuff will get done. In truth, if Democrats retain the Senate and the R’s the House, the next two years are likely to look a lot like the last two. For one thing, the Democratic side is losing a ton of institutional memory and expertise with the retirements of Senator Tom Harkin (chair of the Senate education committee) and Congressman George Miller (ranking Democrat on the House education committee).

There will be some enthusiastic talk of a “grand bargain” on ESEA reauthorization or regarding higher ed scorecards as a way to create a clean slate for the next president, but we heard the same talk before and after 2012–and things will likely turn out the same. There just won’t be the relationships, baseline agreement, votes, or momentum to get anything done by early 2016, after which everything will go into standby mode until after the election. Heck, the administration will quickly start to find itself in “turn-out-the-lights” mode as attention shifts to the 2016 primary field and a battered president continues to struggle with a series of international crises. Key Senate Republicans like Rand Paul and Marco Rubio will be positioning themselves for a presidential run, and the major story will be how ardently the Obama Department of Ed tries to hold the line on ESEA waivers and on its higher ed initiatives, or how much it opts to loosen the reins.

If the Republicans Take the Senate: This would give the Republicans unified control of Congress, although their Senate majority would likely be quite thin (and quite vulnerable in 2016). This would constrain how much Republicans could do and how hard they’d be likely to push. Senator Lamar Alexander would take the helm of the Senate HELP Committee, which is a big deal. A former governor and U.S. Secretary of Education, Alexander is an influential figure with a deep grasp of the issues and a fierce desire to roll back the overreach of NCLB and Obama’s waivers. So, there is a scenario where Alexander works with House Chair John Kline to pass a bill that continues to require annual testing and transparency, scraps the NCLB remedies and much of its micro-management, gives states vast new freedom to use Title I funds (especially to support school choice), and puts an end to Duncan’s waivers. However, this would require Alexander to recruit more than a half-dozen Senate Democrats (presumably from the anti-NCLB left) and the president to sign off on a bill that would expand choice and put an end to his waiver-fueled reforms.

This scenario is certainly possible, but I don’t think there’s more than a 10% chance that it actually comes to fruition. Why? For one thing, keep in mind that HELP handles “health” as well as “education,” which means GOP efforts to repeal or reform Obamacare would unfold in that committee–and they’d take pride of place. What’s more likely than new legislation, I’d suspect, is heightened scrutiny of Obama initiatives in K-12 and higher education, including things like the results of the SIG program and the administration’s treatment of for-profit colleges. If Democrats lose the Senate, Obama’s final two years will be a pretty dismal time for the administration–much like the final two years were for Bush after the Dems took Congress in 2006. If a frustrated former U.S. Secretary of Education is bent on taking a hard look at the administration’s effort to turn the Department of Ed into what he’s repeatedly labeled “a national school board,” it could be a couple pretty long years for whoever is tasked with closing up shop at ED.

-Rick Hess

This first appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up

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