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Legislative Update: March 20, 2013

Perhaps it was the president’s “charm offensive,” or maybe because spring is in the air in the nation’s capital. Whatever the cause, for a brief period last week, education advocates actually thought something positive might come of the Senate debate on the federal budget for fiscal year 2013.

The House passed their FY 2013 continuing resolution (CR), which enforces sequester levels and adds another cut of 0.098 percent for good measure. The proposal would mean that, in FY 2013, education programs would be funded at 6 percent below the FY 2012 level. When Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) took up the Senate version of the CR last week, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) offered an amendment that would have added modest funding to the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education bill and made it separate, rather than part of the CR as the bipartisan proposal would do. Though initially the amendment was thought to have strong support, that was not the case. Once Senator Shelby opposed the Harkin amendment, his colleagues fell in line to vote against it, and it failed on a party line vote. The period of optimism was short lived. The debate on the CR and remaining amendments continues, although it should be completed in time to accommodate a final agreement between the House and Senate before the March 27 deadline, avoiding the possibility of a government shutdown.

With work on the FY 2013 budget in its final stages, work on the FY 2014 budget got under way last week. President Obama has yet to present a budget to Congress and is not expected to do so until early April. That has not prevented House and Senate Budget Committees from drafting and debating their own budget outlines. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) introduced a bill that would eliminate the deficit in 10 years by eliminating tax loopholes and reducing tax rates, converting Medicare to a voucher system, block-granting Medicaid, and further cutting domestic spending. He would put the government on a tough spending reduction diet, and his plan has the support of the House GOP.

The budget resolution debate in the Senate was strikingly different. Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced a plan that did not attempt to eliminate the deficit within any time frame but instead would increase revenues by $1 trillion by closing tax loopholes and cutting spending by an equivalent amount. She, too, got the support of her Democratic colleagues. Envisioning common ground between these proposals is hard, so the House and Senate are likely to proceed with developing two very different budgets for FY 2014.

As Congress worked on fiscal issues, President Obama met with Republican and Democratic caucuses in the House and the Senate. Although some praised his efforts at bipartisanship, others considered the gestures inadequate and too late to be effective. He pushed Republicans to reconsider their position on revenues and urged Democrats to acknowledge the need for entitlement reform. Few, if any, people walked away from those meetings happy about what they heard. 

Eleven More States to Receive SIG Funding
On March 4, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, and West Virginia will receive School Improvement Grants (SIG) to continue efforts to turn around persistently low-performing schools. State educational agencies receive SIG fund awards and then offer the opportunity for competitive subgrants to local educational agencies with the greatest need for the funds and commitment to raising student achievement. During the past six years, the SIG program has invested up to $6 million at each of the 1,300 participating schools. “When schools fail, our children and our neighborhoods suffer,” Duncan said. “Turning around our lowest-performing schools is hard work, but it’s our responsibility. We owe it to our children, their families, and the broader community. These School Improvement Grants are helping some of the lowest-achieving schools provide a better education for students who need it the most.” More info  

Waivers, Accountability, and Teacher Evaluations
The Center for American Progress and the Raben Group discussed waivers, accountability, and teacher evaluations on both the national and local level with John Deasy, superintendent of the Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD), and other education experts. The event highlighted reforms implemented in LAUSD and discussed how federal policies affect local governance. Highlighting the partnership needed to develop a teacher evaluation system, Deasy explained that teachers across the district collaborated with LAUSD personnel to create a system that both groups approved. Classroom observations are one piece of the agreed-on teacher evaluation system, and they include a new framework of best practices to use as criteria to guide teacher observations, which are conducted by evaluators who have completed a rigorous certification process. The entire observation is evidence based, said Deasy, so an evaluator cannot make a judgment without giving “measurable, observable, and demonstrable” reasons. Concluding his remarks, Deasy asserted that LAUSD’s decision to join eight other California school districts in filing for a district-level waiver comes from the belief that although the state accountability system is good, it is not nearly as robust as it should be. More info 

Industry and Philanthropy in STEM
Last Wednesday, the House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Research held a hearing titled “STEM Education: Industry and Philanthropic Initiatives,” which featured representatives from industry and programs to discuss corporate and philanthropic investments in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. Referring to current government spending on STEM initiatives and programs—more than $3 billion annually across 12 federal agencies—Subcommittee Chairman Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) cited a report from the Government Accountability Office suggesting that the Office of Science and Technology Policy develop a government-wide strategy for STEM initiatives to ensure efficiency while eliminating duplicate and ineffective programs. Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) emphasized America’s rank behind other countries in science and math achievement and the implications of this comparative weakness for the workforce. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) noted the importance of learning about partnerships and programs taking place outside the federal government to address this workforce issue to avoid duplicate programs and ensure effective use of resources. Chairman Smith asked panelists for input on how the federal government can avoid duplicating programs. More info (includes recording)  

Center on Education Policy Discusses Waivers for No Child Left Behind
On Thursday, the Center on Education Policy (CEP) at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development held an event to discuss the findings of its new report, States’ Perspectives on Waivers: Relief from NCLB, Concern about Long-Term Solutions. Based on a fall 2012 CEP survey, the report captures states’ early experiences applying and implementing waivers. Key findings include the following:

  • States believe that waivers address several problems of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements.
  • States are optimistic that waivers will improve student learning.
  • Waivers have shaped state policies and accelerated some reforms.
  • Changes in teacher and principal evaluation systems are well under way.
  • States have mixed views about the costs of implementing waivers.
  • Many states are concerned about what will happen if Congress reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

More info 

Briefing on Higher-Ed Consumer Tools
The U.S. Department of Education hosted a briefing on its higher education consumer tools, including the College Scorecard, the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, the College Navigator, and the newly updated website. First, a question that many in higher education have asked was posed: Why so many tools? If the goal is simplification, is there a concern for information overload? The panel answered that students and families come across information in so many ways that having multiple websites was crucial. Later, during questions from the audience, many school officials inquired about the lack of consistent and updated information across the tools. Department officials responded that they view these consumer tools as an ongoing project and continue to seek feedback from the community as well as consumers. Slide presentations and an archived video are available here.

House Passes SKILLS Act
The House voted last Friday 215–202 to approve the Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills Act (SKILLS) (H.R. 803), the long-overdue reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act. Sponsored by Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), the legislation will eliminate and streamline 35 redundant and ineffective employment and training programs; create a Workforce Investment Fund to serve as a central source of support for workers, employers, and job seekers; and “require local workforce investment leaders to outline the strategies they will implement to serve at-risk youth, individuals with disabilities, veterans, and other workers with unique barriers to employment,” according to a press release. “After a decade of debate and delay, Congress is another step closer to approving comprehensive job training reform legislation,” said Chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee John Kline (R-Minn.). “At a time when 12 million Americans are unemployed and the national debt is spiraling out of control, workers and taxpayers can no longer afford the failed status quo. The SKILLS Act will remove the bloated bureaucracy standing between job seekers and the training they need to get back to work. It is time for the Senate to act so reform can become reality.” Although Republicans support this approach to modifying job training programs, the Democratic members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee walked out of the committee markup of the bill to protest both the process for developing the legislation and its content. Those sentiments persisted during floor debate of the bill. The Senate has yet to act on this matter this year. More info  

Alliance for Excellent Education Discusses MetLife Survey
The Alliance for Excellent Education held a webinar to examine The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Challenges for School Leadership. Alliance President Bob Wise explained that “the report captures the viewpoint and experiences of teachers and principals working to implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), transform curriculum and instructional practice, address the individual needs of diverse learners, and ensure all students are college and career ready in an environment of strained resources.” The report emphasized the decline in principal and teacher job satisfaction: principals’ satisfaction has decreased by nine percentage points since 2008, and teacher satisfaction has dropped by 23 percentage points—to its lowest level in 25 years. The report notes top challenges that teachers and principals face, including managing school budgets and resources, addressing the individual needs of diverse learners, and engaging parents and the community. The report also concludes that—

  • principals and teachers disagree about the skills and experiences school leaders need;
  • teachers and principals have more confidence that teachers can teach the CCSS than they have that the CCSS will benefit students;
  • many challenges that leaders face are beyond the capacity of schools to address; and
  • challenges that educators cite are greater in high-needs schools.

More info 

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