The Aftermath

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

On Wednesday I reported on the early outcomes from the U.S. election. At that time I stated that it wasn’t quite the “tsunami” that some had predicted. In hindsight, I guess it was. Montana trickled over, and then so toppled George Allen in Virginia. In the end, the Democrats took over the House AND the Senate, leaving the President with the judiciary.

I don’t want to beat this dead horse too long, but given the week that was, I have a few more thoughts about the outcome and impact that this election may have on education and other things.

First things first. I know Joe Leiberman is from Connecticut, not Vermont. Give me a break. They just seem the same (sorry Don H.). I stand corrected.

Second, now that the Senate has officially entered the Democrat column, real changes are not only possible, but probable. On Thursday, Speaker-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi had her lunch meeting with President Bush and they all put on nice faces, regardless of the fact that Ms. Nancy recently called the President “incompetent” and an “emperor with no clothes.” In return a few weeks ago, when asked about Pelosi becoming the first female speaker of the House, Bush said, “That’s not going to happen.” Washington civility: another oxymoron.

News flash to the President: Pelosi is on deck to become the Speaker, and she now has control, although not filibuster control, of both Houses. The only thing the President has at this point is the veto, and we’ll see if the lame duck (I mean that in a Presidential way, of course) has the audacity to use it. In some cases, such as stem cell and others, he probably will because it send a strong message to his right wing base, which the GOP will need in 2008 to have any hope. But he’ll have to be judicious with it.

Pelosi is already flexing her muscle. On Wednesday morning, she said that the President must “signal a change of direction” and that a change in the “civilian leadership at the Pentagon” would be a start. A few hours later, Rumsfeld was gone. I’m not suggesting she had much to do with that. Quite obviously, Bush was going to do it anyway—they interviewed the Secretary of Defense-elect Gates last week in Texas—but it did show that the election is going to have an impact.

Interesting, the President had a breakfast meeting yesterday morning with his close cabinet people, including Cheney, Gonzales, Boehner, and others, and at a subsequent press conference said that they will be pushing through legislation over the next two months, before the new seats are taken on Capitol Hill. And to put salt in the wounds, he put Josh Bolton’s name forward to the Senate to be voted on for the U.N. Not going to happen, but a nice try, anyway.

In education, the Democrats appear to be moving fast. George Miller, likely the incoming chair of the Education and the Workforce panel, released a statement Wednesday morning only hours after the election to announce that, working in a bipartisan way (yeah), “we will act quickly to raise the national minimum wage and to cut interest rates in half on college loans.” Senator Kennedy, who will now take over the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, announced that he will first look to raise minimum wage in the country. In his acceptance speech Tuesday evening, Kennedy said: “I’ll fight for education, to make sure that our schools serve all our children well and that college is affordable for every student.” The Devil is in the details, of course, and we’ll have to wait weeks or months to see how this all turns out.

Other areas of interest include the Education Secretary’s “The Future of Higher Education Commission.” Some say that it is DOA (not the Loverboy song), but the Commission’s white paper had some good ideas in it, so let’s hope the baby doesn’t get thrown out with the bathwater, so to speak.

There have been some mumblings about the future of the Institute of Education Sciences, since it was renamed and reconstrued following Bush’s win in 2000. IES has focused on Campbell Collaboration-style, evidenced-based research in education to a zealous degree. Many education researchers feel that IES went way over the edge on this, but even if that holds true, they were at least pushing in the right direction. I’ll be surprised if IES changes that much, and I’m not sure I would argue that it should (more emails will come…).

I discussed student aid on Wednesday. We do know that there will be a push for increased Pell Grants, and I’ll be surprised if there is any problem pushing that through. The DEMs say that they will use the $23 billion that Congress plucked from student aid last year to pay for it. It still won’t cover the bill, however. The DEMs also say they will cut student loan interest rates by half.

Let’s hope that the Democrats doesn’t focus exclusively on tuition and fee issues as part of the “college crunch.” Back in June, Senator Clinton joined other Democrat Senators in calling attention to the rising costs of higher education by way of the Student Debt Relief Act. “Instead of increasing the burden on families,” said Clinton, “we should be doing everything we can to make college more affordable so we can open the doors of higher education to more students.” But as those of us in student aid research understand, focusing on tuition and fees as futile, because the cost of going to college, on average, is less about fees and more about the total cost of attendance. For instance, they suggested a college tuition tax deduction of up to $12,000. That would certainly help a lot of families, but for most attending a public institution it would be better if it covered cost of attendance, which averages about $17,000 at public four-year institutions.

How will GEAR UP and TRIO programs fare? Probably the same, but they will have to wait for the next budget cycle. I don’t expect the Democrats to heap as much abuse on programs like Upward Bound and Talent Search, but remember that this is the most centrist Democratic party we’ve ever seen. Heck, even Heath Schuler, the former Washington Redskins quarterback, won a seat in Congress for the Democrats in the western hills of North Carolina (but to be honest, he’s a lightly-painted Republican at best).

The big challenge for the Democrats, of course, is how to pay for their promises and balance the budget at the same time. They promised to do both. With Iraq funding still omnipresent, this is a tall order over the next two years. And we’re not even talking health care or prescription drugs yet.

Yes, I could go on. At least we’re finally talking about higher education again in Washington. As I said on Wednesday, the next two years should be interesting. Stay tuned.

Enjoy your weekend.

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