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Legislative Update: May 8, 2013

With Congress on recess last week, the hectic pace on Capitol Hill came to a welcome halt. Just before leaving town—actually when many Senators were already in midair—Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) introduced a bill to give the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) the flexibility needed to avert layoffs of air traffic controllers. The measure passed with very few votes cast. The House of Representatives quickly followed suit with an overwhelming vote in favor of allowing these modifications for the FAA under the sequester. That action not only ensured that House members would not experience any flight delays on their trips home, but also set off a firestorm of protests about Congress and the administration picking winners and losers in the budget-cutting game. First the Department of Defense, next meat inspectors in the Department of Agriculture, and then the FAA got relief from the arbitrariness of the sequester. Speculation was widespread in the press and among advocates about what other special interests had the juice to prompt such quick action by Congress and compliance from the president. Unfortunately, education did not appear to be on any of the lists.

The next few weeks are sure to see heavy lobbying efforts by many groups that are also feeling the negative impact of the sequester and seek similar treatment. Possibilities include community health centers providing cancer treatment and services to low-income individuals; the National Park Service, which is bracing for the busy summer season when families plan vacation travel to the nation’s spectacular parks; programs providing housing vouchers for individuals who will soon lose their homes; and federal employees facing furloughs that will, in some instances, significantly reduce their incomes. It is hard to believe the president or members of Congress when they claim, “There will be no more carve-outs.”

Beyond this piecemeal approach to addressing the damage done by the sequester, working to agree to a budget plan for FY 2014 will give Congress a chance for a more thoughtful approach to reducing the federal deficit. Budget chairpersons Patty Murray (D-Wash.) in the Senate and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in the House are trying to craft a workable plan for a conference agreement on their differing budget blueprints. The challenge is enormous, since the gap between spending levels in Senate and House blueprints this year is more than $90 billion. The cap on spending that was agreed on in the Budget Control Act of 2010 is $966 billion—a figure that matches the House number but is significantly lower than the Senate and the administration target of $1.047 trillion. The difference, of course, is revenues. In the absence of agreement on raising more funding or constructively reducing entitlements, $966 billion is the number that they will have to work with. Needless to say, the stakes are high for education and all other domestic programs that rely on annually appropriated funding.


STEM Education Campaign
On April 22, President Obama hosted the third annual White House Science Fair to celebrate the achievements of America’s young innovators. The event featured the inventions of 100 students hailing from 40 states, with exhibits set up throughout the White House. After interacting with the students about their discoveries and gadgets, the president took the opportunity to announce the new AmeriCorps program for STEM education—US2020. The program calls for collaboration between 10 education nonprofits and U.S. technology corporations to get professionals more involved in STEM education. Corporation leadership has pledged to contribute 20 percent of its workforce to volunteer 20 hours a year as student mentors or teachers by 2020. This effort is consistent with President Obama’s Educate to Innovate Campaign and commitment to improving America’s education as expressed in his most recent State of the Union and latest budget proposal. Read more. 

Blueprint for RESPECT
The Department of Education released the Obama administration’s blueprint for RESPECT (Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence, and Collaborative Teaching) on April 25. The program was launched in February of last year and aims to “elevate and transform” the teaching profession. President Obama is asking for $5 billion from Congress for a RESPECT grant program that would support new teachers, increase career opportunities for experienced teachers, and reexamine the salaries of teachers to align them more closely with salaries of professionals in other fields such as architecture, medicine, and law. “Our nation's educators are entrusted with a responsibility that’s impossible to overstate—which is nothing less than to prepare their students, and our children, for the future,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “We heard from thousands of teachers from across the country who contributed their time and creative ideas to help the RESPECT blueprint reflect their own vision for the teaching profession. With this blueprint, together we can work to elevate the profession through competitive salaries, transforming professional development and career opportunities, and relying on the expertise of teachers to advance educational practice and improve outcomes for students.” More info  

No Change in Average U.S. 12th Graders Economic Knowledge
On April 24, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released the report The Nation’s Report Card: Economics 2012, Grade 12, which details U.S. 12th graders’ economic knowledge. The report indicates no change in the overall average score on the assessment between 2006 and 2012. Despite the nation’s stagnant scores, some groups did improve—specifically, students in low-performing schools, Hispanic students, and students of parents without high school degrees scored higher than on previous tests. The unchanged level of overall achievement in economics has raised concerns in the education community. As a part of the assessment, NAEP asked students whether they thought that economic-related courses helped them understand various economics topics. More than two-thirds of high school seniors responded positively, agreeing that courses with an economic focus assisted in their understanding of the U.S. economy and market. Students’ positive perceptions of the impact of exposure to economics in classrooms support giving a higher priority to the subject of economics in our nation’s schools and the need to integrate it into K–12 curricula. Read the report.

2013 Grad Nation Report
The Alliance for Excellent Education recently hosted a webinar to discuss progress in the high school dropout crisis. It featured the release of The 2013 Report Update of Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic, which details progress and includes information on states and student demographics making the largest gains in high school graduation rates. Bob Wise, president of the alliance, emphasized the importance of involving Congress, businesses, educators, and communities to leverage their resources and make effective investments that build on the work of Grad Nation. He also pointed out the nation’s widening earnings gap and the difference in lifetime earnings among high school dropouts, graduates, and those who earn advanced degrees. For the first time, the nation is on pace to reach its national high school graduation goal of 90 percent by the year 2020, if states maintain the current average yearly growth of 1.25 percentage points. According to the report, Wisconsin and Vermont have already reached the 90 percent goal, 18 states are on track to meet the goal, seven states need to accelerate their pace, and 23 states are lagging far behind. Read the report.

Senate Hearing on Financial Literacy
The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Subcommittee on Children and Families recently held a hearing, “The Economic Importance of Financial Literacy Education for Students.” Subcommittee chair Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) was joined at the hearing by ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Senators Al Franken (D-Minn.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). The opening remarks emphasized that an understanding of financial literacy is an essential life skill that should be included in the K–12 curriculum if students are to be truly prepared to make economic decisions critical to their success in college and careers. The senators present were attentive to the testimony and did not appear to need convincing about the relationship between the future economic health of the nation and financial and economic literacy for all students. Senator Franken remarked that the “old school” term “home economics” covered territory not far removed from financial literacy, which he believes should be integrated across the curriculum. Senator Murray said it was clear that the foreclosure crisis was in large part precipitated by homeowners signing mortgages that they did not understand. In her view, requiring a personal finance course is the best way to avert such events in the future. More info (includes full witness statements and a recording of the hearing).

House Subcommittee Holds Hearing on College Costs
On April 24, the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training held a hearing, “Keeping College within Reach: Enhancing Transparency for Students, Families, and Taxpayers,” to hear the views of stakeholders on policies and amendments to include in the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). Chairman of the committee, John Kline (R-Minn.), said that the policies of HEA “affect families nationwide” and urged committee members to “carefully consider feedback from the public” as they develop proposals. He expressed an interest in eliminating burdensome federal regulations that lead to increased costs for colleges and students and in taking steps to simplify federal student aid programs to help families gain a better understanding of the college investment. In his opening remarks, ranking member George Miller (D-Calif.) said he hopes the reauthorization of HEA will help ensure that all students have access to the high-quality, affordable higher education they need to succeed in the 21st century. The reauthorized law must also, according to Miller, help to minimize the increasing costs and growing debt burden on students, eliminate completion barriers, and further strengthen the system of community colleges. Donald Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University, testified about the challenge of providing students with the right information and criticized the lack of good college counseling at the secondary level. He recommended that the federal government consider a “highly targeted, federally funded program to place more qualified college counselors in schools serving lower-income students.” Nicole Farmer Hurd, founder and executive director of the National College Advising Corps, called for universal adoption of the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet—a new tool unveiled by the Obama administration this year and optional for colleges and universities to use to provide better information about the cost of college to students and families. Travis Reindl, program director for the Education Division of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, recommended that the committee revise federal dashboards and data tools, such as the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), so that students can examine an institution’s completion rates by race, income, and gender and determine the institution’s track record for serving students of certain demographics. More info (includes full witness statements and a recording of the hearing).

New National Standards for Financial Literacy
The Council for Economic Education (CEE) hosted a webinar on April 25 to discuss the new National Standards for Financial Literacy, a framework of knowledge and skills that should be contained in a K–12 personal finance curriculum. Stephen Buckles, a member of the standards writing committee, discussed the development, philosophy, and intended use of the standards. The new standards, he explained, are compatible with existing economic standards and focus on everyday economic decision making, whereas the previous standards were largely performance-based and difficult to integrate into lessons. The standards also include benchmarks that reflect behavioral economics and are more than a recitation of facts, he added. Developed by a team of experienced and talented economists, education specialists at Federal Reserve banks, and financial education researchers, the standards focus on six areas of personal finance: (1) earning income, (2) buying goods and services, (3) using credit, (4) saving, (5) financial investing, and (6) protecting and insuring. The new high-quality standards, Buckles said, provide better content to promote better teaching. Each standard emphasizes decision-making skills by explicitly relating planning and goal setting, financial decision making, and assessing outcomes to each standard. Learn more.

Whole Community Support of Digital Learning
On April 25, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Project 24 held a webinar, “Reaching the Whole Child and the Whole Community to Support Digital Learning: Strategies for Success.” The webinar considered how students, families, and communities can contribute to a successful transition to a digital learning environment. Discussion emphasized the fact that digital learning is “more than just trading textbooks for tablets” but is an opportunity to change the way that schools, families, and community organizations drive student engagement and achievement. ED can capitalize on this opportunity through a partnership with Epic-ed, which aims to help teachers who are looking to figure out best practices to deploy education technology. Learn more.

Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics Issues Report
The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics held a meeting of the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics on April 30. The Initiative was created in 1990 with the intent to serve as an advisory board for the president and the secretary of education on issues related to Hispanics and to academic excellence and opportunities for the Hispanic community. Dedicated staff members work for the initiative, which is housed at the Department of Education, and a presidential advisory commission, with members appointed by the president, is an integral part of this effort. Specifically, the mission of the advisory commission is to provide “real-time input and advice on the development, implementation, and coordination of education policy and programs that impact the Hispanic community.” During the meeting, the commissioners released a new report, from which they shared their recommendations to improve educational outcomes for Hispanic students from early childhood through postsecondary education. More info  


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