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Capitol Report: June 6, 2013

Capitol ReportBy Della B. Cronin

As warmer weather descends on Washington, D.C., education advocates see a busy summer ahead. Immigration reform, federal spending, and education policies are all under discussion, a situation that has advocates testing their multitasking skills. Just this week, the administration released its plan for reorganizing federal STEM education programs, building on the sweeping changes proposed in the FY 2014 budget request, which was released in April. Leaders from the National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy were called to Capitol Hill by House Science, Space, and Technology Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) to discuss the plan and answer questions. The same day, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee released a plan to revise the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The 1,100-page proposal is a partisan one—reportedly supported only by the Democrats on the committee—and is similar to the bill that the committee endorsed in 2011. Although it contains many of the provisions in that smaller bill, some provisions have been added—presumably those that Chairman Harkin took out of the earlier bill in an effort to win over some of his Republican colleagues. In recent weeks, bipartisan negotiations on the bill broke down, and Senator Harkin and his colleagues pulled together the bill that they want—one that gives the federal government a significant role in K–12 education—versus one that would appease the more conservative committee members.

The proposal’s provisions related to STEM education and the Math Science Partnerships are again based on a bill from Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). The STEM Education for the Global Economy Act of 2013 (S. 854) proposes changes to current law that would distribute funds, based on a formula, to states to use to award competitive subgrants to support various STEM-related activities, including recruiting, supporting, evaluating, and training STEM teachers; developing and improving high-quality STEM curricula and instructional supports to improve student achievement in those subjects; and integrating STEM instruction with instruction in reading, English language arts, or other academic subjects. The STEM Master Teacher Corps program receives support in the proposal, as do various STEM competitions for K–12 students and other educational activities. The bill and its proposals have been supported by the STEM Education Coalition, of which NCTM is a member. The HELP Committee has announced intentions to begin debating this bill on June 11.

Over in the House, Education, and the Workforce Committee chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) is also working on an ESEA proposal. Needless to say, his plan is likely to be much smaller than Senator Harkin’s bill. The proposal is expected to be similar to the bill that the House Committee passed last year and to recommend sending money to states to address equity and quality issues as they see fit, with little accountability and few requirements. It will not propose any new significant investments in math teachers or STEM education.

With two very different—and partisan—approaches to revising ESEA, education policy pundits (yes, they exist) are not optimistic about the possibilities for a new education law anytime soon, particularly while the Department of Education continues to implement state waivers and states and others are somewhat complacent, taking a wait-and-see stance as the process goes forward. That means that NCTM and others are pursuing other legislative options to further their policy agendas. The immigration reform debate is linking new proposed fees with investments in STEM education, and NCTM has been on Capitol Hill talking to lawmakers about how a new STEM education fund would be good for the teaching and learning of mathematics. Other issues that NCTM is watching include the Workforce Investment Act, America COMPETEs, and activity that is related to addressing social and emotional learning and was instigated, at least in part, by the tragic shootings in Connecticut late last year.

If NCTM members are looking for some action in the summer months, Capitol Hill will certainly provide it.

Della B. Cronin is with Washington Partners, LLC.

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