A (Simple) Spatial Analysis of the Senate as it Pertains to Education

Since education legislation in Congress has been shunted to the backburner while our politicians attempt to fund the government and avoid breaching the debt ceiling, I decided to write an admittedly simplified spatial analysis of the Senate with regards to education.

For parameters, I chose the NEA’s legislative report card as a measure of each Senator’s position on education.  The NEA grades each Senator on a scale from A to F, based on his or her adherence to the NEA’s stated aims and legislative goals.  Senators were graded on their voting records and five other criteria, reproduced below:

  • Cosponsorship of bills critical to advancing NEA’s identified legislative priorities;
  • Behind-the-scenes work to advance or impede NEA priority issues;
  • Committee votes in support of or against NEA priorities;
  • Accessibility of the Member and staff in Washington, DC to NEA staff and leaders;
  • Accessibility and education advocacy in the Member’s home state or district.

While this is by no means a perfect spatial measure of the Senate, as there are only five possible outcomes and it takes the NEA’s partisan beliefs as rubric, it was the only such measure of dedication to education that I could find.  Unfortunately, the NEA’s latest report card is for the 112th Congress (2011-12), so there are some missing data points for newly-elected Senators and the possibility of change between the current and former Congress.  However, I believe that for this simple analysis, the report card should be adequate. 

The Education Committee

The first real obstacle to a proposed education bill is the Education Committee (officially the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions).  There are 22 Senators on the Committee, 12 Democrats and 10 Republicans.  Nine of the twelve Democrats on the Committee received an A from the NEA; the other three, Tammy Baldwin, Christopher Murphy, and Elizabeth Warren, were elected in 2012.  On the Republican side, there was one A (Lisa Murkowski), one C (ranking member Lamar Alexander), two Ds, four Fs, one new member (Tim Scott), and one member on a medical leave of absence (Mark Kirk, who has since returned).  In order to fill in the gaps in the data, I am assigning all new Democratic Senators a grade of A and all new Republicans a grade of D (the rationale of this will be explained later).  This gives the committee as a whole 13 As, one C, three Ds, and four Fs.  The median of the committee, which would fall between the eleventh and twelfth members of the committee, is in the A range.  Thus, significant education reform (at least reform following the NEA’s education goals) should be able to pass through the Education Committee without any trouble.

The Senate as a Whole

The NEA’s grades for the Senate as a whole are rather stark.  Of the 51 Democrats in the 112th Congress, 10 were new members and thus did not receive a grade, and the other 41 all received As.  On the Republican side, there were two As, one B, two Cs, five Ds, and 31 Fs, with six new members.  There were also two independents, Angus King, who was a new Senator, and Bernie Sanders, who received an A; both caucus with the Democrats.  These grades, though they bring into question the objectivity of the NEA, are how I came up with my assumptions for new members.  Every single Democrat in the Senate received an A, and I gave the six new Republicans the benefit of the doubt in terms of education and gave them Ds.  The overall composition of the Senate, then, is 55 As, one B, two Cs, eleven Ds, and 31 Fs.

To pass the Senate, a bill must receive a simple majority vote; since the median voter in the Senate (between the 50th and 51st Senators) is in the A range, this should mean that any education reform bill favored by the NEA should be able to pass the Senate.  However, this does not take into account the filibuster.  Senate Republicans, wary of any bills that increase government spending, would be likely to filibuster any sort of education reform bill.  To pass a filibuster, the bill would need 60 votes.  The 60th vote in the Senate, according to the NEA and my assumptions, is a D.  This makes it unlikely that an education reform bill of any kind would be able to pass the Senate due to not having 60 votes to override a filibuster.  Whether this is due to ideological differences over the role of the government, different ideas about how the education system should work, or the current fight over government spending is hard to tell from the NEA’s rankings.  One thing is for sure, though: until Congress solves the budget and debt ceiling, we are unlikely to see any meaningful education reform bills make it any further than the Senate Education Committee.

-Chris Gibson

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