A potential change in policy on the war in Iraq might not be the only result of the Democrats’ success on Election Day — the power shift could have palpable effects on education policy as well.
With the Democrats apparently having won a majority in both houses of Congress, some education policy experts expect a shift in how Congress approaches issues like tax breaks for college tuition and oversight of student loan programs. As Democrats take control of committees in the House and Senate, they will be able to set the legislative agenda and might put these issues on the front-burner, experts said.
It is still too early to tell exactly what might happen during the next legislative session, said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank. Much still hinges on which Democrats chair various committees, he said.
Hess said the Democrats’ primary education policy goals will focus on lowering costs for students, but they will probably not be achieved immediately.
“The big fly in the ointment on all this is certainly the House Democrats in particular would like to put more resources into subsidizing college costs,” he said. “If [James] Webb holds in Virginia, there is going to be a strong pull for this agenda, and [President George W.] Bush won’t be too eager to veto.”
Webb received roughly 7,000 more votes than incumbent George Allen on election day, but Allen has not conceded.
Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said that while he is unsure how soon changes may take effect, he hopes that the shift in Congress will help increase financial aid.
“I think it’s certainly too early to tell, but we’re all hoping that federal support for financial aid will increase,” he said. “For example, many in higher education are looking to Congress to increase the size of Pell grants.”
Many experts will also be watching what the new Congress might do to police companies that give out student loans. Many of these companies give benefits and gifts to universities that refer students to them. Hess said Democrats may try to hold hearings to bring this behavior to public attention.
Jonathan Gillette, director of the Yale teacher preparation program, said that although he thinks the Democratic victories will encourage more centrist debate on educational policy, many issues do not fall strictly on party lines.
“It’s very difficult to figure out sometimes where the thrust [for education legislation] is coming from,” Gillette said.
Under the Republican-controlled Congress, attempts to renew the Higher Education Act — which will expire in December — have failed. Education pundits say the change in leadership of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which has been plagued by partisanship in recent years, might allow Democrats to renew the bill without making cuts. The act provides for student aid and funding for higher education institutions.