Education in the 115th Congress
Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Representative Virginia Foxx (R-NC), chairs of the education committees, have both expressed interest in an overhaul of the Higher Education Act (HEA), last comprehensively reauthorized in 2008. Senator Alexander’s goal with the HEA overhaul is to make it easier for more students to attend college, and will likely include a simplification of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Representative Foxx would like to see the federal government out of education policy entirely, but realizes that is not likely to happen. Accepting that reality, she would like to reduce the federal role and move more responsibilities to state and local education agencies, which she believes will lead to more responsible spending.
In the 114th Congress, the House overwhelmingly passed a rewrite of the Perkins Act, the federal law which oversees career and technical education (CTE), but the Senate was unable to pass its version. Given its broad bipartisan support and the progress from last year, there is optimism a Perkins Act reauthorization will reach the finish line this year. The HELP Committee has added Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), who sponsored several pieces of CTE legislation in the Senate last Congress and has long been an advocate for CTE during his time as Senator, Governor of Virginia, and before he was elected to office. With his new influence on the Committee, he is expected to continue his efforts to get the Perkins Act rewrite across the finish line in the 115th Congress.
Republicans, who maintained their majority in both chambers, are also expected to target regulations handed down from the Obama Administration including the overtime rule, teacher preparations rules, rules aimed to crack down on for-profit colleges, and Title IX guidance released from the Office of Civil Rights.
This Week’s Hearings:
- On Wednesday, January 11, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions will hold a hearing on the nomination of Betsy DeVos to be Education secretary in the Trump administration.
Confirmation Hearing Scheduled for Betsy DeVos
The Senate Committee on Help, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) has scheduled a confirmation hearing for President-Elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, for Wednesday, January 11.
Republicans have been very supportive of the nominee in the press and during meetings leading up to the confirmation hearing, including Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) who will oversee her confirmation process. Upon President-Elect Trump’s announcement last November that DeVos would be nominated to head the Department of Education, Senator Alexander released a statement lauding her accomplishments in expanding educational opportunities for children. Additionally, Senator James Lankford (R-OK) spoke with DeVos last week and has said he plans to work with DeVos, once confirmed, to rein in the Department’s Office of Civil Rights.
A number of Democrats have expressed concerns with DeVos’s work in education, including Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Ranking Member of the HELP Committee, who met with DeVos last week. Senator Murray’s concerns were not eased after meeting with DeVos and she has said she will ask DeVos to explain her plans to expand early childhood education, address college affordability and student debt, and campus sexual assault. Moreover, a group of six senators including Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bob Casey (D-PA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Al Franken (D-MN), and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) sent a letter to DeVos this week asking for clarification on her political contributions, which were released ahead of the confirmation hearing. DeVos has not replied to the request at this point. Michigan Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, both Democrats from DeVos’s home state, have released statements expressing concerns with her nomination and are expected to vote against confirmation.
Off Capitol Hill, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney published an op-ed in support of DeVos while the Home School Legal Defense Association and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools have sent letters encouraging senators to confirm DeVos quickly. The Common Sense Kids Action has encouraged senators to ask questions about education, technology, privacy, and early learning during the hearing, and the National Education Association, the Network for Public Education, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, are opposing her confirmation.
Despite the opposition from Democrats in the Senate, DeVos is expected to be confirmed easily because only a simple majority of 51 is required for confirmation and Republicans currently have a majority of 52 seats.