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Georgia Senate Runoff Will Affect Reach of Biden’s Education Agenda and the ‘Larger Political Dynamic’ in Washington

By Linda Jacobson | January 4, 2021

Democrat Raphael Warnock, Republican Kelly Loeffler, Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican David Perdue (Getty Images)

America could know as early as Tuesday night which party controls the U.S. Senate — and possibly the scope of President-elect Joe Biden’s education agenda.

The outcome depends on Georgia voters, who are casting ballots in a pivotal runoff election. One Senate race pits Republican Kelly Loeffler, whom the state’s governor appointed last year to finish retired Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term, against Democrat Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church.

In the other, incumbent Republican David Perdue is seeking a second term and facing Democrat Jon Ossoff, a media executive.

The results could determine how much support Biden will have for the costliest and most progressive parts of his education agenda, such as tripling funding for high-poverty schools, forgiving student loans, and pursuing another pandemic relief package. While the president-elect is expected to use executive powers to bring back some Obama-era policies, experts said with the runoff and the slimmest of Democratic majorities in the House, Biden will need to appeal to GOP moderates in both chambers to move major legislation.

Republicans, who currently have 50 seats, need to win just one of the two races to retain their majority. If the chamber is split 50-50, Democrats will gain control with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker.

A political trifecta in Washington — when one party controls the White House and both chambers of Congress — is uncommon and usually doesn’t last long, according to Michael Barone, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Since 1969, Democrats have held the White House, the House, and the Senate for a total of only eight years.

“It’s not as monumental inside the Senate. It’s monumental for the larger political dynamic,” said Bethany Little, principal at EducationCounsel, an education consulting firm. When Democrats control the White House, the House, and then take the Senate, “that’s when the game has changed.”

While President-elect Joe Biden won Georgia, the latest polls show no clear front runner in either Senate race. According to FiveThirtyEight, Loeffler trails Warnock 48 percent to 50 percent, while Ossoff leads Perdue 49 percent to 48 percent. Perdue is spending the rest of the campaign in quarantine after being exposed to someone with COVID-19, but President Donald Trump is planning a Monday night rally for both Republicans, while Biden is expected to travel to Atlanta for the Democrats. Democrats have seized upon early pandemic stock trades by Loeffler and Perdue as evidence of wrongdoing. The GOP senators, however, maintain they’ve done nothing wrong. Leoffler and Perdue describe their opponents as radical leftists.

The importance of the race is evidenced by the energy and resources Republicans and Democrats are pouring into the state. Some analysts predict spending on campaign advertising could reach a staggering $500 million in an already record-setting year for spending on Congressional races.

The role of centrists 

With control of Congress undecided until after the runoff, confirmation hearings for education secretary-designate Miguel Cardona and other cabinet nominees could be on hold, especially if a winner in each race isn’t immediately clear.But with Biden opting not to choose a union leader for education secretary — an option several outlets reported he was considering — he’ll likely have an easier time winning approval from the Senate for that position, even if Republicans retain control.

Cabinet member confirmations require 51 votes. But with a 60-vote rule in place to end debates over major legislation, Biden will need more votes for some proposals, such as another COVID-19 relief package.

That’s why even if the Democrats gain control, they’ll be looking for support from moderate Republicans such as Mitt Romney of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — all members of the education committee. Republicans, on the other hand, will continue to appeal to Democrats they view as more bipartisan, such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

“Senators who are willing to vote with the other side will certainly find themselves getting a lot of attention and likely very favorable treatment of any issues that disproportionately affect their states,” said Steven White, an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University in New York.

The last time there was a 50-50 split in the Senate was 20 years ago whenCongress passed one of the most far-reaching education laws in American history — No Child Left Behind. President George W. Bush signed the law about a year after he defeated Democrat Al Gore — another election debated in the courts. But the even split in the Senate didn’t lead to partisan gridlock. NCLB was just one piece of major legislation to come from a Congress united by the war in the Middle East following Sept. 11.

“People think of 50-50 as polarizing, but it actually wasn’t,” said Little, with EducationCounsel, who worked as chief education counsel to the Senate education committee at the time. “It was very affirming to centrist, moderate, bipartisan work.”

Then-Senate leader Trent Lott and Democratic leader Tom Daschle negotiated a power-sharing compromise in which committees were also split 50-50, but with Republicans serving as chairs. They even wrote a book about it in 2016, hoping their efforts at bipartisanship would inspire current members.

But such camaraderie might be impossible now. Relations between Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and current Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have worsened since McConnell expedited conservative Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and after months of bitter fights over relief legislation.

If there are few senators working to find middle ground, that could “change the calculus,” Little said. But moderates already demonstrated their influence by pushing for agreement on the most recent relief bill after numerous other efforts failed. “It wouldn’t have happened if centrists hadn’t restarted negotiations,” she added.

Future of school choice

Loeffler, also a member of the education committee, is not among those centrists. Loyal to Trump, she has pushed for increased funding for private school choice.

In September, she sponsored a school choice bill that would give low-income families and those who have children with special needs access to federal funds for private school or home school expenses.

But Julia Martin, legislative director at Brustein and Manasevit, a Washington-based education law firm, said once President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are no longer in Washington to champion school choice, Loeffler might have a harder time attracting an audience for the issue.

“Without the secretary in an active role there, you do wonder how she is going to press that point,” Martin said.

The future of school choice in the courts is another issue that rests on the Senate’s makeup.

“A Democrat-controlled Senate would appoint more progressive judges who would be less inclined to rule in favor of school choice proponents and those advocating for religious institutions,” said Leslie Finger, an assistant professor of political science at the University of North Texas. “With Republican control of the chamber, judicial appointments are sure to be held up.”

In addition to confirming Barrett, the McConnell-led Senate has scrambled to fill federal court vacancies with Trump nominees. There are currently 53 vacancies in the federal court system, with 30 nominees pending.

Perdue sits on the armed services, banking, budget and foreign relations committees. When he ran for office in 2014, he advocated for “defunding” the Department of Education. Last year, he co-sponsored legislation that would have allowed education pods — small groups of students learning together while schools operate remotely — to receive federal funding, without states and localities interfering. The bill also would have allowed “home educators” to get the same tax deduction for expenses as teachers. Loeffler was a co-sponsor on the bill, which died in the finance committee.

Perdue was the lone sponsor of the SCHOOL — or Safely Creating Healthy Opening Options Locally — Act that would create a $55 billion grant program to cover COVID-19 testing and expenses related to reopening schools, including cleaning, masks and other supplies. The bill was referred to the education committee, but never went any further.

Charter school advocates are also closely watching the outcome of the runoff. Ron Rice, senior director of government relations at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said even if Warnock or Ossoff campaigned on the idea of charters hurting traditional schools, they would need to “govern like moderates” because of strong support among voters for charter schools.

During a recent post-election webinar, he counted former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who defeated incumbent Cory Gardner in November, among other Democrats in Congress who have supported charter schools, including Cory Booker of New Jersey, Diane Feinstein of California and Dick Durbin of Illinois.

Biden is expected to be tougher on charters than some school choice experts would like and has said he doesn’t want any federal funding flowing to for-profit operators. But Rice said the president-elect will likely govern as a moderate on the issue.

“I don’t think there’s a hit squad on charters in the incoming administration,” he said.

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