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Legislative Update: January 23, 2013

The 113th Congress has three critical fiscal issues to resolve over the next two months—not much time to get the job done. The first involves the debt ceiling. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced last week that the government will run out of money to pay the interest on the enormous federal debt by the first of March, if not sooner. Second, if Congress continues to be unable to reach consensus on an alternative, March 1 is also the date when the remaining 10 months of cuts to defense and non-defense discretionary funding will take effect as a result of the currently delayed sequester. (Part of the deal on the fiscal cliff was a two-month delay in these mandated cuts.) And third, the continuing resolution that is funding all government agencies because of congressional failure to pass a FY 2013 budget expires on March 27.

Though these fiscal obligations are pretty clear, Congress is in the dark about how to resolve these crises. Early in the week, many House Republicans boldly endorsed the notion that default on the debt was “no big deal.” The president would just have to prioritize the bills to be paid. Social Security checks—yes; Medicare—no, and so on. That posturing did not last for long. At the annual GOP House retreat later in the week, there was talk of extending the debt ceiling for three months, or possibly six months, in return for equivalent cuts for each dollar provided. Not to be outdone, a growing number of Democrats in the House and Senate are urging the president to invoke the 14th amendment, which states that the validity of the government’s debt“shall not be questioned,” and thusbypass Congress or just print more money. All the while a growing band of economists and financial experts urge Congress to eliminate the debt ceiling entirely and allow the government to borrow whatever is necessary to give the economy some stability.

The president appeared unmoved by all these recommendations. His position is simply that Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling to prevent the U.S. government from defaulting on its obligations. No if, ands, or buts about it: “Just call me when you get the job done because I am not interested in talking to any of you.”

Although not much was said about the sequester last week, what was said was disturbing. It seems that many in the GOP believe that they have lost public support with their position on the debt ceiling. The so-called leverage that they now have with the president is over the devastating cuts that sequestration will require. Some went so far as to claim that the cuts this will impose on defense spending might just be the price they have to pay. These same individuals believe that refusing to negotiate a new deal on the FY 2013 budget and instead letting the government “shut down for a while to let the president know how serious they are about reducing spending and the debt” is the way to go. In other words, the lines in the sand are deepening and the idea of compromise, even if it’s in the best interests of the nation, is off the table for the time being. Somebody had better call in the grown-ups before it’s too late.

Developing the CCSS Assessments
Education Week recently hosted a webinar examining test designs and instructional tools planned by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness and College and Careers (PARCC)and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) to assess learning aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Highlighting the different test designs and the range of instructional tools under development, the webinar included presentations by leaders from both consortia, whose work is funded through a grant of more than $300 million awarded by the Department of Education (ED). SBAC outlined three aspects of its assessment: (1) summative assessment, used for accountability purposes and administered at the end of the year; (2) interim assessment, used to measure students’ understanding through the course of the school year; and (3) formative assessment, used to inform instruction. PARCC’s assessment will have two summative, required assessment components; two optional assessment components to provide information to inform instruction; and, in English language arts, a required non-summative component to assess students’ speaking and listening skills.

Administration Proposes Gun Control and Safer Schools Plan
On January 16, President Obama introduced a new plan for increasing and enforcing gun control, making schools safer and expanding access to mental health services. In response, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated, “I have been proud to serve President Obama and this administration since day one, but Wednesday was one of my proudest days.” Guided by recommendations from an anti-violence task force led by Vice President Joe Biden, the president’s plan consists of four “common sense” steps to address violence and promote safety. These include (1) closing background check loopholes, (2) banning military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, (3) making schools safer, and (4) increasing access to mental health services. To address school safety, the administration is proposing to create a $150 million Comprehensive School Safety Program to help school districts hire resource officers, psychologists, social workers, and counselors as well as purchase and update school safety equipment, such as security cameras and locking systems. The administration also wants lawmakers to allocate $30 million in one-time grants to help school districts develop and implement high-quality emergency plans and an additional $50 million to help 8,000 schools put in place strategies to reduce bullying, drug abuse and violence. More info 

Education Week Webinar on School Climate
Last Tuesday, Education Week hosted a webinar, “Quality Counts: Involving Students in School Climate,” to discuss how to bring students into the school climate conversation. Guests included Bennett Lieberman, principal of Central Park East High School in New York City, and Meagan O'Malley, a research associate working on the Middle School Climate Initiative for WestEd. Lieberman highlighted the evolution of Central Park East High School from a“chaotic,” low-achieving school into a well-functioning school with a“college-going culture” by involving students in the school’s reform strategy. O’Malley highlighted the benefits that a safe and supportive school climate provides for students, staff, and schools and how the students themselves are often the missing factor in developing a plan to improve school climate. Learn more.

StudentsFirst Releases State Policy Report Card
StudentsFirst, a bipartisan grassroots movement committed to “common sense reforms that help make sure all students have great schools and great teachers,” released its first “State Policy Report Card” on January 7. The report card is designed to grade the effectiveness of each state's education reform policies. According to StudentsFirst CEO and founder Michelle Rhee, “The most powerful way to improve student achievement from outside the classroom is to shape policy and implement laws at the state level that govern education.” Thus, the new report card examines and rates states’ policies on (1) elevating teachers, (2) empowering parents with data and choice, and (3) spending resources wisely. Learn more.

Digital Learning Day
The Alliance for Excellent Education recently held the first in a series of webinars designed to culminate in Digital Learning Day on February 6. The first webinar discussed the plans of some states, schools, and national organizations for participation this year. Moderator and senior policy associate at the Alliance, Terri Schwartzbeck, described the concept of digital learning as any instructional practice that is “effectively using technology to strengthen the student learning experience.” Such practices include using data to personalize student learning and provide feedback, online learning, and blended learning with online learning taking place in the classroom with a teacher, according to Schwartzbeck. Learn more. 

Report Finds High School Grads Decreasing in Numbers, Increasing in Diversity
The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) hosted an event on January 10 to release the eighth edition of Knocking at the College Door: Projections of High School Graduates. The report and the data in it indicate that the population of U.S. high school graduates is seeing a modest decline in numbers after nearly two decades of sustained growth. In addition, the pool of future college students is rapidly growing more diverse, both racially and ethnically. Learn more about the report and its projections.

CCSS and Current Education Reforms
The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) hosted an event on January 10, “Common Core: What’s Next for School Systems?” that focused on the Common Core State Standards and their intersection with education reform efforts. David Coleman from the College Board described the interdisciplinary techniques that the Common Core calls on teachers to use so that, for example, literature is taught in science and art classes. Coleman also reflected on the ability teachers now have to leverage effective teaching through the use of open source resources, which give educators who are developing innovative lesson plans in one state the opportunity to share their ideas with fellow teachers in other states. More info 

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