2019 Education Policy Outlook
By: Andrew Shaw, Eric Tanenblatt and C. Randall Nuckolls (Dentons)
Few committees in the House will have a more significant change in point of view than the House Committee on Education and Workforce. During the 115th Congress, the committee has been chaired by Congresswoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC), a hard-charging conservative with past experience as a college administrator and community college president. She was very critical of many of the actions of the Department of Education (ED) during the Obama administration and has applauded many of the actions of current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to unwind many Obama-era policies and regulations. The new chairman of the committee will be Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) a courtly member with a quieter style of leadership and a completely different agenda for the committee.
With a Democratic majority in the House, the Education and Workforce Committee will be tasked with taking the lead in challenging many of the actions that have been taken by Secretary DeVos to revamp the student loan program, including collection procedures; reorganize and streamline the ED; eliminate or significantly change regulations regarding the for-profit education sector; and change how higher education accreditation agencies are approved and alleged violations of civil rights in various school settings are handled. The ED’s recently revamped Title IX regulatory guidance for dealing with incidents of school-based sexual assault drew immediate fire from Democrats and many in the grassroots community. It is expected that the committee will hold numerous hearings on ED actions taken during the first two years of the Trump administration as well as future actions.
Early indications are that House Democrats plan to move quickly in 2019 to address gun violence and hope to pass a package of bills dealing with broader registration requirements and other gun control measures. An important part of this effort will include legislation dealing with how elementary and secondary schools address gun violence and improvements in school safety.
The Education and Workforce Committee will be the committee assignment of many new members of the 116th Congress, as there are numerous vacancies on both sides of the aisle.
On the Senate side, the announcement just before Christmas by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, that he will not run for reelection in 2020 has major implications for the consideration of education issues in the 116th Congress. Alexander, a former secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, governor of Tennessee and president of the University of Tennessee, has been the leading voice in Congress for common sense federal education policies that support state efforts but do not interfere with what he sees as state independence on many education issues, particularly at the elementary and secondary school levels. He successfully worked across the aisle with Democrats in 2015 to pass the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), an update of the 2002 landmark No Child Left Behind Act. ESSA is the primary federal law that governs federal programs and how federal taxpayer dollars are spent in support of elementary and secondary schools. Alexander’s leadership in crafting ESSA to passage was widely applauded as one of the most important achievements of the 114th Congress.
Chairman Alexander must now, during the last two years of his chairmanship, turn his attention forging a middle ground between House Democrats and the Republican majority in the Senate on provisions of a Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization. During the most recent Congress, Representative Virginia Foxx (R-NC) led her House Committee Republicans to approve a rewrite of the HEA that contained some sections that had broad appeal, but others that were so controversial she was never able to get the House Republican leadership to schedule a floor vote on her bill—the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act—because of fear that it would fail on the House floor. In response to the Foxx bill, ranking Democrat Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced an alternative, the Aim Higher Act, to outline Democratic priorities for an HEA reauthorization. While Chairman Alexander set forth some obvious changes that he supports in a HEA update, such as reform of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, he never introduced his own version of an HEA reauthorization bill. His good working relationship with Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the ranking Democrat on the HELP Committee, was strained by Senate nomination and confirmation fights. Consequently, Alexander found that Senate Democrats weren’t in a mood to discuss an HEA rewrite when it might be more advantageous to wait until the 116th Congress and a Democratic majority in the House. Now that that has occurred, it will be interesting to see how Alexander and other Senate Republicans attempt to navigate differences with the Democrats in the House and Senate in an effort to pass a HEA reauthorization before Alexander leaves the Congress at the end of 2020. Clearly, any legislation that can get 60 votes in the Senate and a majority in the House will need to be a different and more moderate bill than the one approved by House Education and Workforce Committee Chairwoman Foxx.