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Legislative Update: February 21, 2013

President Obama delivered the first State of the Union address of his second term last week, and those who were looking for big ideas in education policy weren’t disappointed. The emphasis on a recovering economy, stronger middle class, and thriving workforce extended to education policy, and the president made several suggestions about how the country might do better in educating its citizens. He asserted that the skills and training needed by the country’s industries must be developed early. He forcefully made the case for the federal government to begin working with states to make “high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.” In addition to focusing on the early years, the president’s concern about graduating high school students who are prepared for college and a career continues to be a high priority. Citing Germany’s focus on graduating high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from a U.S. community college, he proposed that such results be the future of education here and announced a new challenge that would “redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy. And we’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math.”

Higher education policy won some attention in the president’s address as well. The president spoke about the rising costs of higher education and asked Congress to amend the Higher Education Act (HEA) so that affordability and value are considered in determining institutional eligibility for certain types of federal aid. The White House unveiled its proposed “College Scorecard” the next day, asserting that the new tool would allow parents and students to compare colleges and determine the value of varying schools and programs.

Of course, these new, big ideas are being discussed against the backdrop of fiscal panic. Education advocates are pushing Congress to intervene and prevent automatic, across-the-board cuts that will affect almost every federal program, including those administered by the Department of Education. Without intervention, the cuts will take effect March 1, and with Congress adjourned until February 25, there are only four legislative days to act. The Non-Defense Discretionary Coalition, which represents 3,200 organizations—many of them education-related—sent a letter to every member of Congress earlier last week, seeking another solution for deficit reduction. Later in the week, Democrats proposed an alternative to sequestration that would increase revenues by changing some tax laws to yield more payments from the wealthy and implement targeted spending cuts without hurting the most vulnerable populations. Although a vote is expected on that package, Republicans will almost surely reject it, leaving no clear alternative to the cuts.

The Senate Appropriations Committee held a hearing last week and invited leaders of government agencies to answer questions about what they might do under a sequester. When Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was asked how he might use discretion to implement the cuts required to meet the legal requirements of a sequester, he came close to asking the panel not to allow him leeway that would force him to make unbearable decisions, such as choosing between students served by Title I and those with special needs. That choice would presumably be much rougher on him than his guest appearance in the NBA Celebrity All Star game. This week will give advocates and others a bit of a respite from the pace of this week, but it will be the calm before the storm. March will certainly be coming in like a lion in Washington, D.C.

21st-Century Skills Education in Classrooms
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) and the National Research Council (NRC) recently held a briefing on a new report, Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills for the 21st Century. The report represents a conceptual shift in education supporting the 21st-century skills movement. The study committee found that goals for “deeper learning,” the process through which a person becomes capable of taking what was learned in one situation and applying it to new situations, and the three 21st-century competencies—cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal—align with the goals illustrated in the Common Core State Standards and the NRC Framework for K–12 Science Education. More info 

Leadership in K–12 Education
In an event on February 12, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) discussed frustrations that inhibit education leaders’ ability to improve schools and systems. Numerous rules and policies make it difficult for school leaders to enact change. Often pathways are available, but many school leaders are unaware of these routes, creating a culture of “can’t.” Even when large ambitious policy change is legislated, few systems have leaders that can effectively implement and execute it. Watch the video.

Senate Appropriations Committee Holds Hearing on the Sequester
On February 14, the Senate Appropriations Committee hosted a hearing, “The Impacts of Sequestration,” which provided a forum for heads of federal agencies to testify on the devastation that sequestration would create in their respective domains. Every member of the Senate Appropriations Committee attended the hearing, which featured Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan; Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano; Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter; and Controller of the Office of Management and Budget Daniel Werfel. Each agency leader provided an opening statement that depicted the damage that sequestration would do to his or her agency’s budget. Specifically, Secretary Duncan said that the sequester would predominantly hurt the most vulnerable children, given that they are the ones whom federal education dollars historically serve. He explained that the “biggest cuts take effect next school year but the impact would take effect sooner because hiring decisions have to be made in the spring of the previous school year. So, schools will [make] do with less teachers and administration.” Title I dollars, which serve the neediest children, would be cut by $725 million dollars, and if sequestration were triggered, the impact would be felt by 1.2 million students in the nation. Additionally, funding for students with special needs would be cut by almost $600 million, a decrease that would require states and districts to cover. Asked “[If] you had to make the dumb decision to cut education versus defense, don’t you think that defense comes first, given it is the federal government’s first line of responsibility to protect our nation?” Secretary Duncan replied simply, “I think we should be able to chew gum and walk at the same time.” Grabbing the last word, Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) asserted that he would pick defense. More info  

Technology in Education
The House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education held a hearing, “Raising the Bar: How Education Innovation Can Improve Student Achievement.” Chairing his first hearing, Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) excitedly convened the session, explaining that as a father of young children, he understands that children of today learn differently from earlier generations. They require a revamped education system that uses technology seamlessly, he added. John Bailey, executive director of Digital Learning Now, noted that “technology has changed virtually every sector” except education. Thoughtful use of technology allows students to learn at their own pace and can provide equal access to high-quality instructors and as well as an extended selection of courses for all students. Jim Shelton, assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement at the Department of Education, stated, “We have to act… we have reached another Sputnik moment.” Technology greatly expands access, particularly to rural students and students with disabilities; transforms teaching and learning; and can enable the expansion of research and development in education. Shelton stressed that the use of technology is supporting increased learning time. During the question-and-answer session, members of the committee expressed concern about barriers that schools may experience when trying to implement technology-based efforts. “The traditional model is being threatened,” Bailey responded, and schools may face implementation challenges as a result of state caps on the number of students who can participate in online learning and seat-time requirements. More info (includes recording).

After-School Programs and College and Career Readiness
The American Youth Policy Forum (AYFP) held an event on February 8 titled “Fostering College and Career Readiness through Afterschool and Expanded Learning Opportunities” to discuss the role of after-school and extended learning programs in preparing students for college and the working world. The forum focused on initiatives in Indiana and Illinois that have contributed to the effort of increasing college and career readiness. The Indiana Statewide Afterschool Network (IN Afterschool Network) has developed after-school standards for their programs across the state and has included a definition of college and career readiness in the standards. The Starfish Initiative in Indianapolis, Indiana, is an extended learning program specifically focused on college and career readiness. The successes of each of these programs serve as evidence that after-school and extended learning programs increase college and career readiness. More info 

First Hearing of the 113th Congress
On February 5, the House Education and the Workforce Committee held its first hearing of the 113th Congress. The hearing, titled “Challenges and Opportunities Facing America’s Schools and Workplaces,” featured witnesses who gave committee members and staff varying perspectives on policies that could help more Americans gain access to the training and education necessary to compete in the 21st-century workforce. The testimony and question-and-answer session touched on wide-ranging issues and highlighted some of the partisan differences among committee members, such as the appropriate size and cost of the federal government’s education policies and the effects of managing government spending from crisis to crisis. The conversation touched on K–12 and higher education issues, as well as the potential effects of the fiscal issues pending on Capitol Hill. More info (includes recording)

HELP Committee Holds Hearing on ESEA Waivers
On February 7, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held its first education hearing of the 113th Congress: “No Child Left Behind: Early Lessons from State Flexibility Waivers.” In his opening statement, committee chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) expressed the need to understand the status and scope of state waiver plans being implemented, as well as the conditions and activities of states that do not have approval, and to ensure that the policies and programs in place are effective in meeting the needs of our most vulnerable students. The hearing featured two panels, with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as the sole witness on the first and a slate of education experts on the second. In his testimony, Secretary Duncan noted that the goals of the current version of ESEA—the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)—are “the right ones,” especially the provision requiring states to disaggregate data, but he observed that it has become a “barrier to reform” and has “unintentionally” encouraged states to lower their standards and teach to the test so that more students will appear proficient. During the second panel, Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, shared her organization’s analysis of the ESEA waiver accountability provisions, noting the discrepancies hidden in states’ approaches to measuring“super-subgroup” achievement. More info (includes archived webcast, testimony, and opening remarks).

CCSS, Teacher Evaluation, and Professional Development
The Center for American Progress (CAP) recently held an event titled “Using Teacher Evaluation Reform and Professional Development to Support Common Core Assessments” to release a paper by the same name and discuss how to ensure the successful implementation of assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards. The report provides recommendations concerning observation protocols, student surveys, value-added models, and teacher performance assessments. The panel discussion highlighted several points addressed in the report. More info 

District Support for Struggling Schools
On February 4, the American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) hosted the first event in a series focused on the way in which research is being used in policy and practice. At the forum,“Districts’ Use of Research to Support Struggling Schools,” presenters discussed how research has been used by school districts and how they can use it more effectively. The study’s findings suggest that a school’s capacity for change and improvement depend on how well information and research data is communicated and shared through the network of educators. Attention must be paid to the strength and frequency of communication among school educators and officials to ensure that the research findings “make it into the hands of educators working to improve our nation’s schools.” Learn more.

The Power of After-School and Summer Learning Programs
The ballroom of the National Press Club was filled on February 5 as the C.S. Mott Foundation and the Expanded Learning and Afterschool Project released Expanding Minds and Opportunities: Leveraging the Power of Afterschool and Summer Learning for Student Success. This new compendium of studies, reports, and commentaries on the best practices and impact of after-school and summer learning programs presents “clear and sound evidence” that quality after-school programs provide a variety of benefits to participants, their families, and the greater community. More info  

Fordham Discusses Effective School Leadership
On February 5, the Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL) of the Thomas Fordham Institute hosted an event to present the findings of the George W. Bush Institute’s report, Operating in the Dark: What Outdated State Policies and Data Gaps Mean for Effective School Leadership. The AREL report explored the principal preparation program approval process, principal licensure, and principal outcome data in order to determine how states are using their authority to increase the supply of high-quality principals who are able to raise student achievement in schools. The event produced a robust conversation about how states can strengthen the rigor of the principal preparation program approval process to ensure that principals are prepared and effective once employed as school leaders. Findings of the report include the information that 19 states are unable to report how many people graduate from state-approved principal preparation programs on an annual basis, 28 states report that neither the state nor principal preparation programs are required to collect any outcome data on principal preparation program graduates, and only 7 states require principals to prove that they are effective school leaders to renew their licenses. In response to this event, the University Council for Educational Administration released its own report AREL Report Leaves Much in the Dark. More info 

Second Annual Digital Learning Day Celebrated as a Success
Wednesday, February 6, marked the second annual Digital Learning Day (DLD). The brainchild of the Alliance for Excellent Education, this event featured the enthusiastic participation of more than 25,000 teachers and millions of students nationwide. DLD is an effort to promote the use of digital tools in the classroom to spark student engagement and update both the content and the delivery of education in the 21st century. To quote Karen Cator, former technology advisor to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, “Everyday should be digital learning day.” This view was echoed by teachers in workshops that were held in the morning in Washington, D.C., and an array of afternoon speakers at a virtual town hall meeting that included Secretary Duncan; Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education; and Congressman George Miller (D-Calif.),. “Digital Learning Day isn’t about slapping a netbook on top of a textbook,” said Wise. “It’s about pairing educational innovation with thoughtful planning and great teaching to provide all children with the 21st-century skills they need in today’s economy.” Video clips from school districts that have successfully reinvented their classrooms and curricula through the effective use of technology were shared throughout the day. At the conclusion of the town hall, Wise announced Project 24, an effort led by the Alliance and many other partners, among them the Council for Chief State School Officers, the Education Commission of the States, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the Software and Information Industry Association. Project 24 will sponsor webinars and online courses, establish communities of practice, and provide free materials and assessments for district leaders on the topic of digital learning. Learn more.

Gun Violence Prevention Task Force Asserts Recommendations
On February 7, the House Democrats’ Gun Violence Prevention Task Force unveiled its recommendations to limit gun violence, in a document titled “It’s Time to Act: A Comprehensive Plan that Reduces Gun Violence and Respects the 2nd Amendment Rights of Law-Abiding Americans.” “We can’t relive what just happened in Newtown, we can’t relive what happened in Aurora, we can’t relive any of the major tragedies, nor can we continue to live in a society where 32 people a day are killed with firearms,” said Representative Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), chairman of the task force. “We have a responsibility. It’s time to act.” The task force recommendations include supporting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans; requiring a background check for every gun sale; strengthening the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) database; closing the holes in our mental-health system and making sure that care is available for those who need it; taking steps to enhance school safety; and addressing our culture’s glorification of violence seen and heard though our movie screens, television shows, music, and video games. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) maintains that he will wait to see what legislation comes out of the Senate before addressing the issue in the House. Read the complete document.

Career and Technical Education Month
February is National Career and Technical Education (CTE) Month. The Department of Education (ED) will join the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE), regulators, students, educators, and stakeholder groups to celebrate a month of events highlighting proven programs. “This year, we all have a chance to work together to promote an increase in rigor and relevance and to support replication of programs that work. As a nation, we cannot continue to allow some youth and adults to be stuck in outdated vocational courses that do not prepare students for in-demand careers,” said John White, ED deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach. The future of CTE will be clear once the FY 2013 budget is finalized and Congress decides whether to take up the reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Act. More info 

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