Former Politicos Discuss Politics of Reauthorization

By Brittany Hackett, Communications Staff 

Former congressional staffers on Wednesday discussed the role politics play in reauthorizing major education legislation, agreeing that the game is far different today than it was in the past.

The event, hosted by the Brookings Institute’s Brown Center for Education Policy, focused on how politics have contributed to the delay in reauthorizing both the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act (HEA). Speakers included:

  • Jason Delisle, director of the Federal Education Budget Project at New America; 
  • Sarah Flanagan, vice president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities;
  • Bethany Little, principal at the EducationCounsel LLC; and 
  • Martin West, associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

Flanagan, a former staff member for higher education on the Senate Subcommittee on Education, Arts and Humanities, said that the process for reauthorizing major legislation like the HEA “used to be … very disciplined” when she worked in Congress in the late 1980s. Now, however, the ease of the process depends largely on the politics within Congress and how the body works with the White House.

“It’s not just enough to have bipartisan conversations, you also have to have bipartisan trust,” Flanagan said. She added that education has also evolved into a national political issue, rather than just a policy issue championed by a few members of Congress. 

West, who was a senior education policy advisor to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) when he was ranking member of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), said that the personalities of congressional leaders and their willingness to compromise and work with the opposite party can also play a large role in advancing major bills.

When asked about the role the White House can play in this issue, Delisle, a former senior analyst for the Senate Budget Committee, said that in recent years President Obama has “taken some of the wind out of the sails” of Congress in terms of their efforts to reauthorize the HEA. Executive action on issues like year-round Pell Grants “starts to remove the incentive [for Congress] to do something about the other parts of the law that are not big money pieces,” he said. 

Delisle noted that issues surrounding value and quality in higher education, as well as accountability, are likely to be “big sticking points” in the upcoming reauthorization. Flanagan added that some of the more contentious issues like repealing student aid programs, sexual assault on campus, and simplification have the potential to “break the desire to have a reauthorization.”


Publication Date: 6/11/2015

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