Midterm Election Brings Gains for School Reformers

Published November 8, 2010

Republican victories in the U.S. House of Representatives and statehouses and legislatures in 19 states will have widespread implications for President Obama’s education agenda, Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind, charter schools, and school choice. But there is little likelihood of radical change, such as abolishing the U.S. Department of Education, Republican leaders say.

Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), one of the architects of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, will assume the role of Speaker of the House. Rep. John Kline (R-MN), in line to chair the House Education and Workforce Committee, has said he would like to see “a return to local control” of education policy, but he says shutting down the Education Department isn’t on the agenda.

Local Solutions Touted
Several new members of the House and Senate, including Rand Paul (R-KY), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.), campaigned explicitly on education, saying the federal government should do less and give the states more autonomy and flexibility.

“A smaller role for the federal government will mean a bigger role for parents and local leaders in education,” said Lindsey Burke, an education policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation.

“Having new leadership in Washington committed to returning educational authority and flexibility to the states could mean a reprisal of past proposals, such as A-PLUS, that allow states to opt out of the bureaucratic red tape that has encumbered them during the No Child Left Behind era,” she said.

DC Vouchers Could Return
A significant policy reversal under the new Congress would be restoration of funding for Washington DC’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, which the Obama administration phased out last year. A bipartisan effort in Congress earlier this year to revive the $13 million program was quashed by Democratic leaders.

“I am very encouraged that the new Congress will revive the [program],” said Virginia Walden Ford, director of DC Parents for School Choice. Walden Ford says she met with several supportive members of Congress in the months leading up to the election. “I am happy that so many are still willing to stand with us for the children, including Congressman Kline, who has always been supportive.”

Walden Ford said Boehner has been a “champion” of the DC voucher program.

“He has been quite up-front in his support for the program to be continued and expanded,” she said. “We will move forward in our advocacy, and we are confident that we will be successful.”

Senator-elect Paul says he supports eliminating the U.S. Department of Education and favors reviving the DC voucher program.

“I think vouchers are a good idea,” Paul said. “There are a lot of different ways to craft them, but DC is unique in the sense it is one locality under federal control, and I will vote for school choice.”

Statehouses Shift
At least 19 state legislatures switched from Democratic to Republican control, and several gubernatorial candidates made education reform the centerpiece of their campaigns.

Ohio Governor-elect John Kasich (R) and Florida’s Rick Scott (R) both promised to resist federal meddling through No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Both favor expanding school choice through charter schools and vouchers.

“For those states that have shifted to Republican control in the state house and governorship, I think you will see a push to expand choice through charter schools,” said Andrew Kelly, a research fellow in education policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

“On the voucher question, state budget deficits could make it difficult for Republican lawmakers and governors to find funding for new voucher initiatives that would increase education spending overall,” Kelly said.

‘A Unique Moment’
Greg Forster, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice in Indianapolis, said the elections present “a unique moment” for education reformers.

“In states like Indiana and Oklahoma, conditions are better for choice than they’ve ever been,” Forster said. “The question is whether we have the courage to seize that moment. We could use this opportunity just to pass a couple more small, overregulated voucher programs serving only low-income left-handed Eskimos. If we do, nobody will notice or care, and the moment will fade.”

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.