Post-Election We Must Keep the Focus on Equity

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On Nov. 6, the country re-elected Barack Obama to a second term as president of the United States.  With Florida’s 29 electoral college votes ultimately going to the Democratic candidate, President Obama clinched 332 electoral college votes to Governor Romney’s 206.

In addition to President Obama retaining his office, the House and Senate majorities did not change significantly. The Senate will have 53 Democratic members, 45 Republican members, and two Independents — both of whom are expected to vote with the Democrats. The 112th Senate had 51 Democrats, 47 Republicans and two Independents, so the Democrats will pick up two seats. In the House, Republicans retained their majority with at least 234 members to at least 195 Democrats. At this writing, Democrats have picked up five seats, but there are a handful of races that are still undecided. Roll Call is maintaining a list of all new members.

Although the overarching numbers didn’t change much, some important trends were evident in the election results. Specifically, it was a good night for young people, African-Americans and Latinos. Young people ages 18 to 29 comprised 19 percent of those who voted on Tuesday, 1 percentage point more than voted in 2008. President Obama received 60 percent of the youth vote. Ninety-three percent of African-Americans voted for President Obama compared to 96 percent in 2008, however, they voted at the same historic levels as they did in 2008. As for Latinos: four years ago, President Obama carried 67 percent of the Latino vote; this year, that increased to 71 percent. In addition, Latino participation increased overall from 9 to 10 percent. Consequently, the coalition of young people, African-Americans and Latinos that came together to help elect President Obama in 2008 proved to be just as important this year. It made the difference in swing states such as Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Florida and made it clear that national politicians cannot continue to sideline the issues and needs of these increasingly influential communities.

Also of interest, the 113th Congress will contain the largest number of female senators in history, 20, and New Hampshire became the first state to have a fully female congressional delegation along with a female governor.

So, what does all this mean for education policy for the 113th Congress? At some level, it probably means not much will change. We will still have a divided Congress with a solidly Republican House and a more solidly Democratic Senate. President Obama will, in all likelihood, continue to press his K-12 reform agenda, focusing on effective teachers, college and career ready standards, and some accountability for student performance. He also has promised to focus on college affordability in his second term, as well as ensuring that institutions provide value to students. However, the details of his higher education proposals, particularly how he might define and assess value, remain unclear.

Although Congress has not reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the waivers recently granted by the Department of Education seem to have relieved most of the pressure to move forward with that legislation. Instead, the Senate and House might take up the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which expires in 2013. It’s doubtful they’ll agree on what should be done. They will almost certainly continue to argue over gainful employment regulation of career college programs as well as how to fully fund critical financial-aid programs like Pell Grants. But, the coalition of young people and people of color that has emerged as staunch supporters of the president also has a likely interest in his college affordability and value agenda. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them help push Congress to do something in these areas.

We must remember, however, that all of this comes amidst the ongoing larger conversation about deficit reduction, automatic spending caps (sequestration), programmatic funding cuts, tax reform, debt ceilings, and fiscal cliffs. It is hard to imagine anything substantive being done on education issues other than those related to financing — like tax credits and financial-aid programs — until this larger conversation concludes.

In short, much will remain the same on the education front post-election. We must resolve our nation’s financial issues, but we cannot do so on the backs of students. Rather, it’s time for both parties to come together and redouble their efforts to close the gaps in opportunity and achievement that plague our public education system.