Party leaders believed that if implementation of ESSA under the Obama administration failed to meet conservatives’ hopes, they would have at least a fighting chance of electing a reasonable Republican to steer the law going forward.
Those same Republicans are scrambling to shape the rules for implementing the law, now, despite frequent opposition from Obama Education Secretary John King. Instead of playing ball, King has issued regulations on school accountability and finance that aim to help poor students but also infuriate congressional Republicans. They believe King’s directives violate the law, which is premised on reducing the role of the federal government in education.
Trying to negotiate with the secretary has come to be seen as a more promising option than waiting to see what 2017 brings, however.
The ESSA timeline is tight: Waivers from No Child Left Behind end this summer, with the 2016-17 academic year set to be a sort of a Wild West transition. State plans for ESSA are due by the end of the calendar year; it will be up to the next president to decide if states are following the rules King set.
Practically speaking, there’s little that Republicans can do now to substantially influence the new federal rules. Legislation to overturn agency regulations under the Congressional Review Act has to be signed by the president. Proposals to block Education Department regulations on spending bills historically have gone nowhere.
“The frustration is that we see an administration that doesn’t appear to be reading the plain language of the law, but there’s not much we can do about it,” said Michael Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank. “Besides holding oversight hearings and complaining loudly, I’m not sure what else they can do.”
Petrilli, who counts himself firmly in the “Never Trump” camp, added: “If it seems like some of us on the right are at wit’s end, [it’s because] many of us can’t get ourselves to actually root for Donald Trump, and we are looking at probably four more years of much of the same.”
Neither of the likely outcomes of the presidential election are happy ones for conservatives in the education space.
Take the more likely first. Hillary Clinton has decades of experience in government. Her staff of hundreds has scores of experienced policy hands, and continuity in party leadership could convince some Obama Education Department staffers to stay on under her leadership. Big ideological departures from the rules King set are unlikely.
A Clinton victory also imperils Republican control of the Senate. Half a dozen GOP seats are considered tossups or likely to flip to Democrats, with perhaps another six seats in danger if November becomes a wave election. By contrast, Democrats currently hold only one toss-up seat. With a Democratic vice president casting a potential tie-breaking vote in the Senate, the party would need to pick up just five additional seats to retake the majority.