Workforce education is far from a big-ticket political topic in a nation that will remain deeply divided after a predicted red wave turned out to be a “messy puddle.” And the issue’s relative obscurity has helped it avoid the sort of hyperpartisan battling that besets traditional higher education.
With the election results trickling in this week, advocates at both the state and federal levels were cautiously optimistic about continued momentum on efforts to create more high-quality education and job-training options for low-income Americans.
However, experts said failing to maintain continuity with some of the most promising of those programs could be a bigger threat than getting sucked into the maw of the culture war. And even turnover among politicians in the same party could jeopardize the work.
For example, it’s not clear if the ambitious Ready for Life program in Arkansas will be as much of a priority for the state’s next governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Arkansas has been ahead of the curve in its efforts to center job training in economic development, which has been a focus of Asa Hutchinson, the state’s term-limited Republican governor and a national leader on workforce education.
“It’s a huge question mark if these initiatives see a change in administration,” one expert says of Arkansas and other states.
On federal policy, a potentially divided U.S. Congress with razor-thin vote margins may give workforce proposals with bipartisan appeal better odds of getting passed in the next year or so than they would’ve faced amid a MAGA mandate. Sources say those to watch include short-term Pell Grants, funding for apprenticeships, and an increase to the tax break for recipients of employer education benefits.
Outrage politics, of course, could overturn the apple cart. For example, many Republican leaders have bashed corporations for allegedly aligning too much with progressive causes. It’s not a stretch to wonder if job-training programs that seek to lift economic mobility could get lumped in with that crusade.
Likewise, some experts say Democrats might elevate moral positioning over trying to iron out practical or logistical disagreements. And it’s certainly possible they would oppose funding for nondegree education programs or double down on fighting to prevent onlineand for-profit programs from being eligible to receive Workforce Pell Grants.
Yet pragmatism may not be dead in Washington. As one observer noted, Republican lawmakers generally still “can talk out of both sides of their mouth” by squabbling with big business while supporting workforce development policies companies back.
And while Republican voters favor free skills-based training (45%) over free community college (40%), according to polling conducted by the Campaign for Free College Tuition, that margin is narrow. And the distinction can be murky.
‘A last bastion of bipartisanship’
Don’t expect to see abrupt or sweeping changes to state-level workforce development initiatives after Tuesday’s election, even in states where a different party will control the governor’s office come January. Experts say that in states nationwide, Democratic and Republican leaders alike have consistently supported—and in some cases championed—bipartisan efforts to align education and training with the needs of employers.
“Whether it is Florida, Washington State, or Texas, the messaging really has been the same regardless of party: workforce development is the key to the economic engine of our state,” says Jori Houck, media relations and advocacy associate for the Association for Career and Technical Education, a group that advocates for CTE programs.
But states will feel reverberations from the elections, however subtle. Wins for incumbent governors with ambitious workforce development agendas mean they’ll likely continue with or even expand pet projects, said Scott Jenkins, strategy director for state policy at the Lumina Foundation.
+ Take Michigan, where Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer was reelected Tuesday. In 2021, her administration announced Michigan Reconnect, which provides free community college for state residents who are at least 25 and haven’t already graduated from college. State leaders anticipated 60K takers the first year—and got 67K. By August 2022, more than 100K learners had applied. Look for Whitmer to broaden the program in her second term, Jenkins said.
+ Jenkins also expects Tennessee governor Bill Lee, a Republican reelected to a second term, to continue his support for Tennessee Promise. Former Republican governor Bill Haslam created the program in 2014. It uses proceeds from the state’s lottery to provide free community college to all of the state’s graduating high schoolers. Lee took a page from Haslam and used lottery money to help pay for his 2019 initiative to expand the state’s vocational education offerings.
+ Then there’s Oregon, where term limits prevented Democratic governor Kate Brown from running. Earlier this year, Brown signed a new law that poured $200M into job-training programs for construction, healthcare, and manufacturing. Democrat Tina Kotek edged her opponent in a close race that was called on Wednesday. Yet Jenkins said earlier in the week that it’s “unlikely that whomever the next governor is will push as hard and as far as Brown” on workforce development issues.
Some election-related shake-ups have “downstream implications” to workforce development issues and won’t be obvious immediately, says Kate Kreamer, deputy executive director of the nonprofit Advance CTE. In some states, governors are responsible for appointing people to workforce development and higher education boards. New members can mean new ideas about the direction an initiative moves or the speed at which it expands.
But for the most part, workforce development issues are decidedly less sexy than culture war touch points in education, like critical race theory and social-emotional learning, and therefore remain under the radar. The good news, though, is that the lack of controversy means policy makers can focus on the actual work rather than politics, says Kreamer.
“It’s one issue that both parties come to the table on, and whoever is in power continues to support it,” she says. “They may talk about it in different ways. They might value it in slightly different ways, but it’s one of the last bastions of true bipartisanship.”
The view from Washington
It’s still not clear who will lead the education and workforce committees in Congress. But changes are coming on the Senate side.
Senator Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat, is expected to swap her leadership role in the HELP Committee for one in appropriations. Her Republican counterpart, Richard Burr of North Carolina, is retiring.
They likely will be replaced by two strong personalities: Senators Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul. As Linda Jacobsonwrote for The 74, this “odd couple” would feature a Vermont Progressive who believes in free college for all and a libertarian-leaning Kentuckian who wants to abolish the U.S. Department of Education.
If Republicans take the House, Representative Virginia Foxx would need a waiver from her party to once again lead the chamber’s Education and Labor Committee, reportsPolitico’s Juan Perez Jr. It’s not a sure thing that the North Carolina Republican and former community college president will get the nod. But the smart money is on Foxx reclaiming the gavel for what she would rename as the Education and Workforce Committee.
Foxx has said higher education and workforce policy will be top priorities for the committee, says Lindsay Fryer, a senior vice president at the Penn Hill Group. Bipartisan agreement won’t be easy, especially considering the leadership changes in the Senate.
Yet Foxx has a relatively good working relationship with the committee’s current chair, Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia. She “works hard to engage her members and build momentum to at least get Republicans interested in these issues,” says Fryer, a former Republican Hill staffer.
Fryer thinks a bipartisan approach to revamping the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act has a better chance of happening in this Congress than does a similar lift with higher education, like reauthorizing the Higher Education Act for the first time since 2008.
Workforce Pell: Foxx recently made her case for opening up Pell Grants to education programs that take less than 15 weeks to complete. She described the GOP’s proposal for “workforce” Pell Grants as an “alternative to a baccalaureate degree.”
A Workforce Pell proposal had some bipartisan momentum last year. And while sticking points remain on quality standards and for-profit eligibility, several observers say they expect broad support for short-term Pell in the new Congress.
“There continue to be key differences in the details to be worked out,” says Julie Peller, executive director of Higher Learning Advocates. “But the need and support for quality short-term programs will grow, especially as the number of in-demand jobs continues to grow along with a workforce in need of training or upskilling to fill those roles.”
Tuition Benefits: More than half of U.S. companies now offer education benefits, with more joining their ranks seemingly every week. The federal government incentivizes these corporate “free college” programs through a tax break for participating workers, who can exclude from their income up to $5,250 per year in employer education contributions.
The $5,250 cap, which has been in place since 1986, fails to cover the full costs of some quality education programs. SHRM, a national HR organization, says many businesses would spend more on educational benefits if Congress increased the cap.
Proposals with bipartisan support would more than double the annual amount, lifting it to $12K. Supporters say such a move would be pro-worker, popular, and could happen in coming months, perhaps as part of a business tax policy change. This scenario may be more likely in a divided Congress. And it doesn’t hurt that a co-sponsor of one of the bills to raise the cap is a contender to lead the powerful Ways and Means Committee if Republicans take the House.
Republicans are in search of a clear alternative to college, says Ryan Craig, managing director of Achieve Partners. And if Democrats continue to bleed support from adults without college degrees, “look for them to acquiesce to Republican demands for a more balanced approach to funding postsecondary education,” says Craig, who recently co-founded the nonprofit Apprenticeships for America.
Likewise, Craig predicts a federal shift from grant funding for apprenticeships to “more reliable” formula-based support, where employers typically receive funds for each apprenticeship they create. This approach has support from both sides of the aisle, he says, pointing to California’s announcement last month that it will use a pay-per-apprenticeship model with $175M in funding.