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Capitol Report: May 8, 2013

Capitol ReportBy Della B. Cronin

Washington has been a busy place in recent weeks, and the STEM education advocacy community has been very active, responding to the president’s FY 2014 budget request, which includes a proposed shakeup of federal STEM education programs. In addition, the annual exercise of asking members of Congress in charge of the federal coffers to invest in important education programs has been in full swing. Programs of particular interest to education advocates include Title II professional development initiatives and the Math Science Partnerships programs. This year though, the STEM education community finds itself in somewhat unfamiliar territory—in the middle of a high-profile, heated policy debate. The conversation on immigration policy reform is big and loud, but what many might not know is that it also addresses the state of the country’s STEM education programs. NCTM and other education and STEM education advocates hope that the legislative proposal that is being supported by a group of bipartisan lawmakers will create new resources for STEM education initiatives while it takes on the numerous and complicated immigration reform issues. Developments on this issue have been encouraging, and a piece of legislation being debated in the Senate proposes a new “Ingenuity Fund” that would allocate resources to STEM education. NCTM has been on Capitol Hill in recent weeks to discuss its support for the idea of increasing fees paid by corporations that hire foreign workers to fill vacancies they can’t fill with domestic talent, and in turn using this revenue to improve STEM education in the United States, thus expanding the domestic STEM talent pool and diminishing future needs to import STEM workers.

In addition, NCTM and other groups affected by the president’s proposal to rearrange the federal government’s STEM education programs have been talking to lawmakers, White House officials, and leaders at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Education (ED), and other agencies about the plan and what it means. The administration’s FY 2014 budget request is a mixed bag for STEM education. It proposes to invest $3.1 billion in federal STEM education programs, a sum representing a 6.7 percent increase. The budget also proposes 13 new initiatives and seeks to consolidate or restructure 114 of the 226 existing federal STEM education programs. Seventy-eight of those would be terminated, and funds totaling $176 million would be focused on three agencies—the NSF, ED, and the Smithsonian Institution. Although the proposed increase in spending is appealing, the rest of the plan is not very detailed, and what the White House can do without congressional approval or and what it needs legislation to implement isn’t exactly clear. NCTM is trying to ferret out the details and their practical implications.

News hasn’t been very encouraging on the subject of progress on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and his colleague, ranking member Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said they would like to move a bipartisan bill this year, but they haven’t outlined priorities or identified areas of agreement yet. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) has reintroduced his bill to revise the STEM education provisions of ESEA, and although NCTM and the STEM education community are supportive of that proposal, it will not move outside the reauthorization process. In the House, Education and the Workforce Committee chairman John Kline will soon hold a hearing on accountability, which, according to a press release, “will offer members an opportunity to examine the appropriate federal role in accountability and explore innovative state and local efforts to hold schools accountable for student performance.” The slate of witnesses scheduled to testify features school leaders from across the country, and they will undoubtedly discuss the shortcomings of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and give some updates to the committee on the implementation of the waivers to NCLB that the Department of Education has granted to many states.  The hearing will also provide observers with more insight into what new members on the panel are concerned about in K–12 education and how—or whether—the two parties might collaborate on rewriting the law, which is now more than 11 years old.

It has already been a busy year for math education advocates, and the next month could be busier.

Della B. Cronin is with Washington Partners, LLC

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