The new 115th Congress and Trump Administration took office this past month with optimistic comments from Republican Congressional leaders and a new President not shy about shaking up the status quo and challenging the political establishment.
The President’s choice to lead the Education Department, Secretary Betsy DeVos was questioned intensely by Senate Democrats at her January 17 confirmation hearing and through over 1,400 written followup questions. She was narrowly confirmed by the Senate on February 7 by a historic vote of 51-50, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-breaker.
It is still too early to tell what education policy agenda the new Administration is likely to develop. During the campaign, education was not front center compared to the President’s other priorities — creating jobs, strengthening national defense, and winning the war on terror. Philosophically, the President generally echoed long-held conservative Republican views on limiting the Federal role in education, encouraging greater school choice through block grants, and touched briefly on the need to reform the federal student loans.
It is notable that thus far there has not been a significant movement of staff from Capitol Hill, lobbying shops, and trade associations to the political team at the Education Department. The one exception is Robert Goad, former staffer for Rep. Luke Messer (R-IN), a strong supporter of school choice, going to the White House Domestic Policy Council. Thus, we expect to see a lot of newer faces in town, such as Jason Botel, the new senior White House advisor for education who is founder of a Baltimore KIPP public charter school and most recently served as head of the school choice advocacy group, MarylandCAN.
There are some who speculate that Congress, not the new Administration, will be in the driver seat on developing the Republican Federal education policy agenda, at least in the near term. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) is a former Education Secretary, Governor, and university president who is passionate about improving education, and he is backed by a strong, experienced policy team on the Senate HELP Committee that has shown that are able to strike deals. However, his working relationship with Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) has recently been challenged by the partisanship around the confirmation of Secretary DeVos. If Alexander and Murray can restore their past working relationship which led to several important pieces of legislation in the last Administration, such as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the HELP Committee may be a place to look to for results.
On the House side, new House Education and Workforce Committee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC), a former college administrator, is equally focused and passionate on policy, and has retained the experienced education policy team that served under former Chairman John Kline. Chairwoman Foxx has also not been shy about jumping into her new role. The Committee has already held two education hearings on big topics — one on K-12 school choice and the other on the challenges facing higher education. Chairman Foxx has also demonstrated a willingness to use the Congressional Review Act to rollback several Education Department regulations, and may try to rollback others through legislation. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), the Committee’s Ranking Member and Democratic colleagues have proposed their own Progressive Education Agenda which they will likely pursue through amendments and other means.
It’s important for those seeking to influence Federal education policy to become fully engaged now, because as we’re seeing, the new Administration and Congress are moving quickly and their agenda is likely to be much broader than the statutes that are currently due to be reauthorized. Partnerships and having a seat at the right table are important because as we all know, in Federal education policy, the devil is in the details.