Although the 2018 midterm ballots are still being counted, there is little doubt that the congressional landscape is changing. While Republicans still hold a narrow majority in the Senate, Democrats now control the House of Representatives for the first time in eight years and have replaced several incumbent Republican governors. What are the key takeaways of the so-called blue wave, and what is its impact on higher education policy?
A closer look at the candidates reveals that a record number of educators ran for office on education policy platforms, and in opposition to the current administration’s policy initiatives. Regardless of whether they won or lost, these candidates brought education issues to the forefront of the political discussion and are vowing to reverse what they see as damage done by the Republican controlled congress under Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Donna Shalala, the former cabinet secretary under Bill Clinton and three-time college president, won her seat in Congress partly on her agenda to strengthen government funding and support of public schools, to raise teachers’ pay, and to enable students to attend public and community colleges without taking on student debt. She is expected to be an outspoken voice for these and other issues affecting higher education.
Other elected officials are making education policy a priority as well. Gavin Newsom, the Democratic governor elect of California, has spoken out about “the need to address equity gaps early on to assure that students from all groups excel in higher education.” He has vowed to re-create a coordinating board for higher education in his state to bridge the divide between community colleges and universities and “to set bold statewide goals and hold institutions accountable to them.” Newly elected Democratic governors in other states have also pledged to bolster the authority of existing oversight boards, restore funding for public education, create scholarships to enable all state residents to attend college without debt, and generally reinvest in higher education.
In addition to increasing funding and ensuring equity in public education from kindergarten through college, the Democratic House is pledging to step up oversight of the Department of Education and Secretary DeVos. As Michael Stratford writes in Politico, “For two years, Democrats watched with fury as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos sought to dismantle nearly every significant Obama administration education policy. Now, they’re gearing up to fight back.” In an article in Inside Higher Ed, Andrew Kreighbaum writes, “With a Democrat running the House education committee, DeVos likely faces the most scrutiny since her confirmation hearings nearly two years ago.” For the first time, Democrats will have the opportunity to take on Secretary DeVos’s agenda, which has attempted both to dismantle Obama-era regulations regarding how colleges handle cases of sexual misconduct under Title IX, as well as regulations aimed at curbing abuses of for-profit colleges, and to limit the forgiveness of student loans. While Democrats can’t compel DeVos to change federal policies absent the passing of legislation, a Brookings Institution blog points out that “Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the soon-to-be chairman of the House education committee, has the authority to call on DeVos and other officials in the department to testify during public hearings.” Moreover, “the House education committee also has the power to subpoena records from the Department of Education. Democrats are likely to use this subpoena power to investigate a wide variety of decisions made by the Trump administration.”
Another major priority of the Democratic majority in the House will be to stall the Republican version of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the law governing federal higher education programs. The Republican bill, which Democrats argue would advance core conservative principles, including deregulation, privatization, and the elimination of critical aid and forgiveness programs, was opposed by virtually all higher education lobby groups. In an Inside Higher Education article, the American Council on Education stated that the bill would be “bad for students and especially bad for graduate students.” Other groups have warned that the Republican bill “exacerbates the increasing burden of student debt and continued inequity in higher education access and outcomes.” Democrats will likely wait until after the 2020 election, when they hope to retake the Senate and the White House, to craft a new reauthorization with their own priorities in place.
Since Republicans have the majority in the Senate and Democrats hold power in the House, partisan gridlock is sure to stymie much of the legislation that passes through Congress in the next two years. There is, however, palpable relief on the part of Democrats that, at the very least, they can reverse or stall much of the GOP’s education agenda with their newly acquired subpoena and oversight powers and their congressional committee appointments.
Turnout for the 2018 midterm elections was historic; more than 110 million Americans cast their vote for congressional leaders, hitting a fifty year high. Most analysts agree that whether fueled by support for or rage at President Trump and his allies, passions on both sides ran high in the hopes of maintaining or upending the current power structure and current policies. As we head into the 2020 election, the voting public will decide if education policy will continue to be a key factor in their voting choices and, ultimately, if public higher education thrives or falters.