New Policy Leadership, New Opportunities for Policy Change


By Lexi Barret, JFF

Voters went to the polls last week in record numbers to cast ballots for dozens of members of Congress, governors, state legislators, Chief State School Officers, State Boards of Education, as well as several regional measures impacting education and the workforce issues.

While ballots are still being tallied in some states and regions, current results show that many winners will be holding office for the first time, with 20 incoming governors who will be new to their position and roughly 83 newly elected Members of Congress. New representatives with fresh perspectives will hopefully help catalyze solutions for meeting our nation’s most pressing education and workforce challenges.

Today’s U.S. economy is experiencing positive gains, continued job growth, and low unemployment, yet challenges remain to fill the nation’s roughly seven million job openings, many of which require some form of postsecondary education beyond high school. And even with October’s 3.7 percent unemployment rate, considerably more than 6 million Americans remain out of work. And according to the US Census Bureau, middle-class wages have grown just six percent since 1979, while low-wage workers have experienced a five percent decrease in wages over the same time period.

Addressing these challenges will not be easy and will require bipartisan collaboration.  Traditionally education and workforce development policy have been bipartisan issues because the health of our nation’s communities depend on the quality of students’ education. Business leaders have also been demanding a more educated workforce to fill the needs of today’s open jobs. This has contributed to Congress coming together in a bipartisan manner to enact the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, the Every Student Succeeds Act, and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act – all occurring during a time of intense partisan divisions.  Next year as Democrats gain control of the House of Representatives and Republicans maintain control of the Senate and Executive Branch it will be essential, even with a divided government, that policymakers continue to address critical education and workforce development issues that confront the nation, on a bipartisan basis. 

 Counter to prevailing opinion, JFF is optimistic that Congress will come together to pass laws focused on preparing America’s current and future workforce with the skills needed in today’s and in the future economy. This includes reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 2008. We can expect a Democratic-controlled House to focus its higher education priorities on college affordability, updating to the student loan program, improving wraparound services for students, and holding institutions accountable for student outcomes, as seen last summer through the introduction of the Aim Higher Act. House Republican priorities over the past year have included innovation in higher education through federal aid consolidation and loosening restrictions on alternative providers, as seen in their Prosper Act.

A new Congress may also update critical social service programs including the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs.

At the state level, we can expect elected officials to continue their focus on issues that were addressed during the campaigns, including: workforce readiness and postsecondary education. States will be looking to improve and expand career and technical education, apprenticeships, and work-based learning to meet state and regional workforce needs.  And state leadership will be looking to tackle challenges of college affordability, access, and success through college promise programs and dual enrollment.

JFF’s 35 years of experience working at the intersection of policy and practice in over 44 states places us in a strong position to connect policymakers with practitioner informed solutions and practices. JFF looks forward to working with new and returning members of the House and Senate, as well state Governors and state legislators to assist in developing and implementing strong programs and policy that provide economic advancement for all.