TC's Henig: What the Elections Mean for Education | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

TC's Henig: What the Elections Mean for Education

As widely predicted, this past Tuesday’s mid-term elections saw the Republicans gain control of Congress and win many state governorships. Jeffrey Henig, Professor of Political Science and Education and Chair of TC’s Department of Education Policy & Social Analysis,  reflects on what the changes could mean for education policy at the national, state and local levels.

What do Tuesdays election results portend for education?

The combination of resurgent state’s rights and ascendant libertarian elements within the Republic Party had already made Republicans more resistant to the Common Core State Standards and an increasing federal role in education policy. So the prospects for bipartisan policy were already dim before the election. They’re dimmer now.

The more conservative elements in the Republican Party have muscled up since 2008. They see Obama/Duncan education policy as federal intrusion. So I think there’s going to be even greater resistance to the administration’s efforts to promote its education agenda by granting money to the states via Race to the Top and by selectively and conditionally allowing states exemptions from NCLB requirements. That resistance may even apply to aspects of that agenda such as charter school development, which appeals to many Republicans. One dominating theme for Republicans in the election was opposing an “Imperial Presidency” and it will be hard for them to work with the White House now.


What specific issues in education are likely to see a change in focus?

States have always been more important than the federal government in setting education policy, and the election shifted more states into the Republican camp. So fewer states will be supporting a strong investment in education. Republicans are generally going to be sensitive to what they deride as  tax-and-spend approaches. They like education compared to other social policies, but their center of gravity is resistance to tax-and-spend initiatives.

So we’ll be seeing less of a willingness to spend, even on initiatives that have popular and business support, such as pre-K.

One exception might be spending on community colleges, because that’s an area where Democrats and Republicans have sometimes found common ground. Republicans see community colleges as providing job skills that allow families to get off social supports. Democrats like community colleges because they deliver benefits and a leg up to low-income people and minorities.


How are districts and schools likely to adapt to less ambitious education spending?

If both the feds and the states are unreceptive to major new initiatives, there may be a resurgence of local activism. Even before this election, federal and state inaction was leading some local officials—superintendents and mayors—to ally with local  businesses, civic leaders, foundations, and social service delivering organizations to  support pragmatic approaches to investing in education more effectively, using what public dollars there are at the local level.  If I’m right that this election is going to make Washington and many states even more paralyzed, it’s likely that this resurgence of local activism will continue.

There’s been a lot of attention to the growing role of philanthropy in education—from Gates to hedge fund supporters of charter schools. This too will probably get a further boost. The leverage of private donors will increase as, more and more, they serve as the only source of money for innovation and change.  Even though philanthropies contribute a far smaller piece of the pie than public funding for education, they provide discretionary money. Local stakeholders are willing to take the lead from private donors: when the pantry is bare, someone coming to the door with a cup of sugar looks pretty good.  And if the stock market growth and long term trends of wealth inequality continue there may even be more money out there in the private sector.


So that would imply an even greater emphasis on charter school development, wouldnt it? Because charters have really been embraced by many foundations and private philanthropists?

Yes. While there are many Democrats who support charters, Republicans are more likely to focus on them as representing a market-oriented alternative to government bureaucracies. Charters cost money, though, and some Republican states may be caught between their desire to expand charters and their desire to contain costs – but that’s where philanthropy could step in.  So in general, yes, the election will probably provide a fertile ground for charters.


How might the election results affect high-stakes testing?

The testing industry is pretty big and powerful. And it provides campaign support and other benefits to both Republicans and Democrats.  And while many Republicans don’t like costs associated with testing, or the federal role in testing, they do like holding districts accountable. So despite the fact that many educators and parents have complained that off-the-shelf tests do not provide sufficiently rich and useful information about whether and how students are learning., states may opt to go with cheaper, lower-quality tests.  


One New York-centric question: The election results come on the heels of Mayor de Blasios announcement of a $150 million plan to convert failing schools into community schools. Chicago, Cincinnati and some other cities have also embraced community schools, and some proponents have argued that by providing wrap-around services to children and families, these schools can actually save money in the long run. So will community schools become a casualty of this election, or an approach taken up by cities in a more cost-conscious environment?

Those who present community schools as a cost-saving mechanism argue that you get more bang for the buck if you coordinate funds that are currently going into separate bureaucratic silos. But without new dollars we won’t get the kind of robust community schools that would really make a difference.

So, yes – cost-efficiency may well become a strategy for selling community schools in this political climate, but that could come back to bite us. My premise is that to address deep areas of concentrated poverty, you need to do more than coordinate funding. You’ve got to actively invest. So I’m skeptical that simple coordination and focus will get the job done.

--Interview conducted and edited by Joe Levine

The views expressed in the previous article are solely those of the speakers to whom they are attributed. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty, administration, or staff either of Teachers College or of Columbia University.

Published Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014