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Legislative Update: May 23, 2013

According to pundits on and around Capitol Hill, last week was the week when “the curse of the second term” unleashed its  full force on President Obama. He and members of his cabinet and staff seemed to be lurching from crisis to crisis as the week wore on. First, it was memos and e-mails related to the violent uprising in Benghazi, Libya; next came the revelation that Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employees had unfairly targeted tax forms from conservative groups seeking nonprofit status for extra scrutiny; and finally, the Associated Press (AP) revealed that phone records for AP reporters had been secured by the Justice Department without their approval as part of a probe into a serious security leak. The bad news just kept coming. Republicans were angry but also somewhat gleeful, wasting no time scheduling countless oversight hearings on these issues. For Democrats and the White House, the response was mixed. With respect to the handling of the news from Bengazhi, Democrats are sticking to their position that the attention is “all about politics.” As for the IRS, Commissioner Steven Miller was quickly removed from his acting position, and a full-fledged investigation is under way, with oversight hearings scheduled on both sides of the Capitol. Regarding the AP report, the jury is still out about whether or not the Justice Department had the right, under very specific circumstances, to act as it did.

When not responding to one crisis or another, members on both sides of the Capitol were busy trying to meet legislative deadlines, some established in law and some self-imposed. The self-imposed deadlines included the Senate Judiciary Committee’s continued marathon mark-up of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744). Early last week, an amendment to the bill was adopted that would benefit science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education by dedicating higher fees paid by corporations for H1-B visas to fund STEM programs at the Department of Education. These funds would be used for grants to states to improve STEM education and for other purposes. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) intends to bring the immigration bill to the floor prior to the Memorial Day Recess.

Another looming deadline relates to student loan interest rates, set to double on July 1 unless Congress acts. Last Thursday, the House Education and the Workforce Committee approved legislation to convert the interest rate for federally supported loans to a market-based interest rate with the support of Democrats John Yarmuth (Ky.) and Jared Polis (Colo.). The proposed legislation is likely to move to the House floor shortly. The Senate is taking a different tack. Senators Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), and 11 co-sponsors introduced a bill that would maintain the current 3.4 percent interest rate for the next two years. The rate would be subsidized by closing three tax loopholes. Given the vastly different solutions to an urgent problem, this should be an interesting debate to watch.

On the appropriations front, the first two bills, providing funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and for military construction (MilCon), were brought to markup in the House. Though both Senate Appropriations Committee chair Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and her House counterpart Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) are committed to passing all 12 appropriations bills this year before September 30, it is clear now that the DHS or MilCon funding measure will be the vehicle for a continuing resolution if they are unable to accomplish that goal.  

Finding STEM Programs That Work
Change the Equation (CtE) recently hosted a webinar, “Finding STEM Programs That Work: the Power of STEMworks,” to discuss strategies and tools for boosting the impact of investments in STEM learning. The discussion particularly highlighted the development of CtE’s new STEMworks Database. The webinar detailed the design principles against which programs are measured in the database and explained that the principles are designed to answer the question, “What is necessary to have successful corporate engagement in STEM education with success defined as long-term increases in student achievement?” Nine overarching principles were identified:

  1. Target a compelling well-defined need
  2. Use rigorous evaluation to measure/inform progress
  3. Base the program in research and deep expertise
  4. Ensure that work is sustainable
  5. Create high-impact partnerships
  6. Demonstrate that work is replicable and scalable
  7. Ensure program capacity to meet goals
  8. Inspire interest and engagement in stem
  9. Address the needs of underrepresented groups

Although a program will not meet every one of the design principles, all nine principles must be considered. In addition to the overarching principles, there are also STEM-specific principles that focus on offering challenging and relevant STEM content and incorporating and encouraging STEM practices. More info 

Dual Language Learners in Early Education
On May 14, the Center for Early Care and Education Research–Dual Language Learners (CECER-DLL) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill released a new report, Dual Language Learners: Research Informing Policy. The report details several practices that can help improve the language attainment of dual language learners (DLLs) in early learning settings:

  1. Incorporating high-quality efforts, such as intentional teaching, qualified teachers, and frequent assessment of both languages
  2. Using both the DLL’s home language as well as English in the early learning setting
  3. Recognizing that learning two languages at the same time is possible but DLLs learning will differ from monolingual students
  4. Considering that a student’s cultural background is critical to providing the proper learning supports

Read the report.

National Center for Learning Disabilities Launches New Report

The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) released a new report on May 15, Diplomas at Risk: A Critical Look at the Graduation Rates of Students with Learning Disabilities. Key findings of the report reveal that the dropout rate for students with specific learning disabilities (SLD) has declined. Students with learning disabilities still remain at risk for not graduating with a regular diploma, and schools will sometimes make decisions, as early as elementary school, to remove students from the regular diploma track. Furthermore, the report finds that states that offer multiple pathways to a diploma actually discourage students with SLD from graduating, and 88 percent of students with specific learning disabilities “expect” to graduate from high school with a regular diploma. Recommendations in the report include the following:

  1. Improve the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR) to improve graduation rates for students with SLD
  2. Include the use of ACGR in all monitoring and compliance activities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
  3. Require states to implement evidence-based early warning systems in high schools that have a significant graduation rate gap between all students and students with disabilities
  4. Urge states to end policies that support early decisions to place students on an alternative route that leads to exiting high school without a regular diploma

More info 

Reauthorization of America COMPETES
The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) recently hosted an event on Capitol Hill to discuss the upcoming reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act—a bill that governs federal investments in research and STEM education programs. Congress enacted the America COMPETES Act with the goal of enhancing the science and innovation enterprise that underpins U.S. economic growth. Although the law has arguably been successful in improving federal innovation programs, more can be done to enhance the implementation, coordination, and overall success of science and technology policy and increase its impact on the economy, according to ITIF. Recently, ITIF released its own set of policy recommendations for a revised law, which is up for reauthorization this year. The recent report, 25 Policy Recommendations for the 2013 America COMPETES Act Reauthorization, proposes a series of reforms designed to revamp the U.S. innovation system and spur additional investment in science and technology. More info  

New Student Loan Bill Introduced
On May 9, John Kline (R-Minn.), chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chair of the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training, introduced the Smarter Solutions for Students Act (H.R. 1911), aiming to address the student loan interest rate issues by transitioning to a market-based rate. The president also put a similar plan forward in his FY 2014 budget proposal. “As I’ve said time and again, we’ve got to stop kicking the can down the road with short-term fixes to this interest rate problem,” Chairman Kline said. “The Smarter Solutions for Students Act is a lasting solution that will serve the best interests of students and taxpayers. Our proposal ensures millions of subsidized Stafford Loan borrowers will not see their interest rates double in July, and other borrowers will actually have their rates reduced. I hope my colleagues in the House and Senate will join us in supporting this responsible bill, and look forward to continuing to work with the administration as we move this proposal through the legislative process.” More info  

First Digital Library Opens to the Public
The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), the first public online-only library in the United States, recently went live (beta version of the discovery portal). Offering more than 2.4 million records of materials found in American archives, libraries, museums, and cultural heritage institutions, DPLA is a free, open-source resource that makes digital collections and archives from American institutions accessible in one place and freely available to the world. The launch has been two-and-a-half years in preparation, and the library has tremendous potential to enrich the experience and digital literacy of students at every level of the educational system, including adult learners, their teachers, and the programs that serve them. More info  

House Education Committee Discusses Accountability
On May 7, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing, “Raising the Bar: Exploring State and Local Efforts to Improve Accountability,” to discuss the federal government’s role in accountability and to learn about current state and local efforts to hold schools accountable for student performance. Committee chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) emphasized the importance of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the need to reauthorize the legislation “in the coming months.” “It’s time to change the law,” he said. “These waivers are a short-term fix for a long-term problem and leave states and districts tied to a failing law.” Kline went on to highlight the four Republican priorities for the rewrite of this law:

  1. Restoring local control
  2. Reducing the federal footprint
  3. Improving teacher effectiveness
  4. Empowering parents

“We have an opportunity to work together in good faith to bring true reform to America’s K–12 schools,” said Chairman Kline, stressing the need “to change the law to more effectively support the teachers, school leaders, superintendents, and parents who are working tirelessly each and every day to ensure our children have the skills they need to succeed.” More info (includes a recording of the hearing and witness testimony).

National Education Association and the State of Assessment
On May 8, the National Education Association (NEA) held a briefing, “The State of Assessment,” to discuss the use of assessments across classrooms and the appropriate process of their development and use. Expert panelists discussed the partnership Teach Plus, formed with the NEA to encourage teachers to use the “Assessment Advisor,” an online site that allows teachers to rate assessments that they have used in their classrooms. Qualities of top assessments include alignment with standards, tracking of learning gains, and feedback that helps teachers identify strengths and weaknesses. With respect to policy, policymakers are advised to incentivize states and districts to examine all assessment regimens over the course of the year, identify the best, and streamline these to create a coherent school-year assessment plan. More info 

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