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How Will the Midterms Impact Education?

By Patrick McGuinn 
November 1, 2018

If I were a gambler, I would not be putting any money on the 2018 midterm elections. Polls and odds seem to shift daily, if not hourly, and even this close to election day we don’t have a clear idea how Democrats and Republicans, incumbents and challengers, outsiders and party mainstays, will fare come Nov. 6.

One thing we do know, of course, is that things will change. Whether Republicans hold both the House and the Senate, or whether Democrats can edge out a majority in one or both chambers, this election will reverberate in the form of legislation, policy, and socioeconomic priorities for years to come.

Today I want to look at one of those issues in particular: education. From large-scale concerns like school funding, infrastructure, and student civil rights to federal legislation like the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the Higher Education Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the next Congress will have a great deal of say in our nation’s public education landscape.

Based on my own work and conversations with colleagues throughout the political sphere, here’s how I think things might play out, pending the results of this pivotal election. 


If Republicans Hold Congress

Despite controlling both chambers for the first two years of the Trump administration, Republican lawmakers have not been terribly receptive to the executive branch's education agenda. Congress has rejected calls for dramatic cuts to federal education spending, and actually increased that spending in its last budget. Likewise with proposals to dramatically expand support for school choice, and in particular for school voucher programs nationwide. 

I certainly don't think that this Congress, if it remains under Republican control, is going to march in lock-step with the Trump administration’s goals. The difference, in 2019 and beyond, will be the lingering impact of the 2017 G.O.P. tax plan. Following significant tax cuts for large corporations and individuals, Republican lawmakers are now pushing for dramatic, across-the-board cuts in federal spending on domestic programs. I think education is unlikely to be immune from that push.

Title I spending, unfortunately, may be a target. It is obviously the biggest pot of federal spending under ESSA, and it is targeted toward those districts with concentrated poverty, with disadvantaged students who require supplemental programing and educational resources. These are, for the most part, not Republican-leaning parts of the country. There are, of course, many rural districts that benefit from federal education funding, which are represented by Republican lawmakers who have historically supported programs like Title I. But at the end of the day, if the Republicans have to find money, it could be on the chopping block.

I don’t expect much to change at the U.S. Department of Education. The department has been generally focused on cuts – cuts to education spending, cuts to department staff, cuts to regulatory protections and programs like the Office for Civil Rights – and they have achieved a great deal in that direction. Even if the Democrats were to take the House or Senate, the department will likely stay its course.


If Democrats Take the House

Regardless of electoral outcomes, two things will remain true on Nov. 7: Donald Trump will still be president, and he will still be a subject of the special counsel investigation led by Robert Mueller. Reports suggest that one of two things will happen after the midterms: Mueller will release his findings, or the president may seek to fire a key player or two and replace them with someone who would fire Mueller. Either alternative would preoccupy Congress for a long time, and there may not be much oxygen left in the room for discussion of education policy.

There are, however, major education bills that are still pending for reauthorization in Congress. One, the Higher Education Act, is essentially the college and university complement to the K-12 ESSA law. It’s been pending reauthorization for some time, and it was not acted on prior to the midterms. If the Democrats take control of one or more chambers, they might consider taking that up in the next legislative session. Recently, for example, there has been extensive discussion at the state and federal levels regarding free college. That concept may find a place in the HEA bill, if it's reauthorized. But, due to budgetary concerns, it may face an uphill battle.

The other education bill hanging in reapproval limbo is IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. While it, too, would require funding, IDEA has enjoyed a level of bipartisan support for a long time. The federal government has never picked up anything close to its share of that spending, so Republicans, if they can find the funding, may be willing to support and perhaps even strengthen it going forward. 


The 116th United States Congress

With either party in charge, there will be unresolved education issues that require attention in 2019. The largest, in my opinion, will be education spending. 

We are now a decade removed from the “Great Recession,” which forced drastic cuts in state education funding across the U.S., and many states have still not returned to their pre-2008 levels. This has contributed to the wave of teacher strikes we’ve seen throughout the country in 2018, and more recently to an unprecedented number of teachers running for state and federal office. It will be interesting to see how those bids play out, and how officials will respond to increasing demands for renewed funding. 

I think there will be some action around teacher pay, some action around increasing education spending in the state legislatures, after the election. That action – both its scope and its direction – will likely be decided in these midterms.

We also have an estimated $200 billion in unmet school infrastructure needs across the U.S., and despite bipartisan support for federal infrastructure investments there is no imminent path to a solution. A 2017 infrastructure bill – the $100 billion “Rebuild America’s Schools Act,” introduced in the House by Rep. Robert Scott (D-VA) – has so far failed to gain traction. Here again we could either see movement or continued delay, depending on the returns Nov. 6. 

I discuss each of these issues, and a few more, with CPRE Director Jonathan Supovitz on the latest edition of the Research Minutespodcast, available here or on your favorite podcast marketplace.

From ESSA to equity, school choice to civil rights, teacher pay to accountability, our education system will face a diverse range of choices and challenges throughout the next legislative session. And while it may not always make headlines, education is an issue that impacts all Americans, young and old, Republican or Democrat. On Tuesday, voters will have a say in where we go from here. Do we double-down? Do we stand or fold? How much should we put in the middle? We’ll find out on Nov. 7, when the American people show their cards.  

Patrick McGuinn is a senior research specialist with the Consortium for Policy Research in Education and professor of political science at Drew University.

Interested in contributing a blog to the CPRE Knowledge Hub? Email us at

Consortium for Policy Research in Education

University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education
3440 Market Street, Suite 560
Philadelphia, PA 19104
Tel: 215.573.0700
Fax: 215.573.7914


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