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Legislative Update: April 25, 2013

On April 17, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made his second trip to Capitol Hill to defend the president’s FY 2014 budget plan for the Department of Education. This time he appeared before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. Subcommittee chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) gave him a warm welcome, as did the new ranking member on the subcommittee, Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). Actually, there were kind words all around for a cabinet official whom the members view as caring, energetic, and responsive to their concerns—regardless of their party affiliation.

That warm welcome did not extend to the budget plan that the secretary was defending, however. Although Democrats universally praised the $75 billion 10-year investment in pre-K education and the $750 million early education fund, bipartisan criticism met proposal for level funding of critical formula grant programs such as Title I, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act programs, and Impact Aid. Repeatedly, members raised concerns about the growth of competitive grants while formula grants withered on the vine. With the rural make-up of the subcommittee, this was a concern the secretary had to address. He tried. First, he said that truly competitive grant funding had increased only by a few percentage points under his leadership at the department. No pie chart could convince them. Then he pointed to the fact that the president’s budget restored the sequester cut, which means a 5 percent increase for all programs. The stoic faces seemed to say “not good enough.” Finally, he noted that increases in the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, Promise Neighborhoods, and the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program, all of which target the same low-income schools, were of concern. He said, “[To] fully appreciate the budget, you have to look at it comprehensively, not line by line.” Again, they weren’t convinced.

The generally friendly exchange was marked by a few testy moments when Senator Mike Johannes (R-Neb.) quietly but firmly listed his objections to several department actions over the past four years. Topping his list was a Department of Education “that is heavy-handed on rules and regulations and light on funding,” has a “my way or the highway” attitude toward state flexibility, seemingly ignores the needs of rural states, and ignores the fact that steep, mandatory increases in Medicaid costs make it hard for states to provide adequate funding for education. Duncan said he would get back to him about these concerns. Johannes remained stone-faced.

At the conclusion of the hearing, a reporter questioned Chairman Harkin about how his committee would get an authorization for the new $75 billion universal pre-K program through Congress. Harkin hinted that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization was under discussion could be a vehicle, and he was pushing hard to have the pre-K plan included.

Senator Harkin’s intense support for early childhood education and his belief that enacting and funding a universal pre-K program is “the right thing to do” was palpable during the hearing. It is difficult to imagine a bill like that making it through the Senate or, even more difficult to imagine, a conference committee on ESEA, in which House Republicans would need to say yes to $75 billion for a new education program paid for with a cigarette tax increase.

President’s FY 2014 Science Budget
Last week the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and its Subcommittee on Technology held hearings to examine the president’s fiscal year (FY) 2014 budget request for science agencies and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). During the full committee hearing, witness John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, highlighted the president’s strong support of the National Science Foundation, NIST, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, explaining that the three agencies are “repeatedly identified as important in maintaining America’s preeminence in the global marketplace.” Other features of the president’s budget that Holdren highlighted were investments in clean-energy initiatives through the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy and the consolidation of STEM education programs. More information, including full witness statements and a recording of the hearing, is available: Subcommittee on technology hearing, full committee hearing  

Next Generation Science Standards Released
After more than three years of work, the final set of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were recently released by Achieve and its collaborators. Like the Common Core standards in mathematics and English language arts, these standards aim to reshape the focus and delivery of science instruction in K–12 education. Supporters assert that the new standards will provide a greater emphasis on depth over breadth in studying the sciences. They seek not only to provide students with a foundation of essential knowledge, but also to lead young people to apply their learning through scientific inquiry and the engineering-design process to deepen understanding. The development of the standards has not been without controversy. Most recently, the various views surrounding evolution as well as climate change and its causes have dominated discussions of the standards. The standards make evolution fundamental to the life sciences and call for teaching about climate change and describing human activities as “major factors.” These debates could make adoption in certain states politically more difficult. Twenty-six “lead state partners” were involved in developing the standards; they have pledged to “give serious consideration” to adopting them. Several other states, including Florida, Louisiana, and Wisconsin, have been providing feedback on drafts and are expected to give serious consideration to adoption. Adopters commit to adopting all the standards. They can add to the content if they like, but they will be required to teach all the content outlined. Certain science advocates, like computer science supporters in Massachusetts, are suggesting that some additions be made to the standards in their particular states. Major funding for the development of the standards was provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Other funders include the Noyce Foundation, the Cisco Foundation, and DuPont. In addition to Achieve, other partners in the NGSS effort include the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. More info 

Education and the Workforce Subcommittee Discusses STEM Education
The House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education recently held a hearing, “Raising the Bar: Reviewing STEM Education in America.” The hearing focused on improving the efficiency of federal investments in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. Subcommittee chairman Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) opened the hearing by noting the asymmetry between the rapid growth of STEM jobs in the United States and the shortage of skilled workers to fill these positions. He went on to state that while the federal government has taken an active role in improving STEM education, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) had completed “reports [that] have shown that taxpayers’ multi-billion dollar investments are failing to produce results.” In FY 2010 alone, the GAO found that 209 programs were operated by 13 different agencies that invested over $3 billion in efforts designed to increase knowledge of the STEM fields and degree attainment. In addition, 83 percent of these programs overlapped with at least one other program, and many of the programs lacked a strategic plan or accountability standards. More info (includes full witness statements and a recording of the hearing)

Economic Education and Financial Literacy
April is Financial Literacy Month, and to celebrate, the Council for Economic Education (CEE) convened a policy briefing on April 11. The event, which was co-sponsored by Senator Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and Senator Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), focused on the role of public-private partnerships in bringing quality financial literacy instruction into our nation’s classrooms. Nan Morrison, CEO of CEE, served as host for the event, and Janet Bodnar of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance was the panel’s moderator. Following remarks from Morrison on the importance of these partnerships and providing an overview of the National Standards for Financial Literacy, a panel of experts discussed these issues and the topics of financial and economic literacy generally. In addition to a discussion of financial literacy–related policy, the event focused on the real life experiences of panelists. The panel was in strong agreement on the importance of professional development related to this topic, the utility of the new national standards, and the need for more research. If economic and financial literacy is going to be part of the school curriculum, teachers must have the necessary professional development to feel comfortable in teaching it. More info  

Federal Student Aid
Last Tuesday, the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training held a hearing, “Keeping College within Reach: The Role of Federal Student Aid Programs.” Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) discussed the potential reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in the coming months. The 2008 iteration of the law was good, she commented, but still had room for improvement. “College costs continue to skyrocket, and too many students struggle to navigate our financial aid system. Families face uncertainty about repayment options and confusion about the differences between various aid programs,” she said. More info (includes a recording of the hearing)

Effective School Discipline

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) held an event last Thursday, “Effective School Discipline Policy and Practice: Supporting Student Learning,” to discuss efforts undertaken by schools to improve student outcomes by implementing evidence-based effective discipline that moves away from punitive zero-tolerance policies. Moderated by Susan Gorin, the executive director of NASP, the panel discussed what does and doesn’t work in discipline. Harsh, punitive punishment has been proven ineffective, she said, and positive, comprehensive and coordinated systems do work. She highlighted an Institute of Educational Sciences practice guide, Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom, that provides five recommendations to address behavior issues. More info 

Additional School Improvement Grant Recipients
The Department of Education recently announced that 13 states will receive funds to turn around their persistently lowest performing schools through the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. The states include Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, and Washington. More info 

Formative Assessment and Implementation
WestEd and the National Association of State Boards of Education recently held a briefing, “Formative Assessment: Hype or Hope?” to examine the results of formative assessments and challenges that policymakers will have to address as the field works to build coordinated assessment systems that can provide information useful to instruction and policy. Stanley Rabinowitz, director of assessment and standards development program for WestEd, said that formative assessment is about immediate classroom intervention and providing teachers with “real information in real time” so that they can make decisions and modifications as part of the instructional process. “Formative assessment is not a test. It is about tools and practices,” said Rabinowitz. Margaret Heritage, assistant director for professional development at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at the University of California, Los Angeles, emphasized the need for research agendas dedicated to the exploration of the learning process and the identification of the cognitive stages that children travel through as they learn different disciplines. More info 

The Importance of Communities in Education
The GE Foundation held a briefing on April 9, “Corporate America Goes Back to School.” Moderated by Rehema Ellis, NBC education reporter and host of Education Nation, the event focused on helping communities prepare students for college and careers. Examining an initiative of the foundation called “Developing Futures,” a panel of invited participants from targeted cities spoke about how the investments and the partnership with the GE Foundation have benefited students, teachers, and their school communities. Panelists included the superintendent of schools from Stamford, Connecticut; a principal and teacher from New York City; and a teacher union representative from Louisville, Kentucky. They all spoke of the challenges that they face in implementing the new Common Core State Standards, providing professional development to help teachers prepare for the more rigorous standards and new curriculum that will be required, and engaging students and parents in this effort. More info  


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