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Legislative Update: July 9, 2013

Advocates of all stripes enjoyed a wild ride in Washington last week. They devoured news of groundbreaking Supreme Court decisions that were both heartening and heart breaking; the passage of the first major overhaul of immigration policy in decades; the travails of notorious security secrets leaker Edward Snowden, trapped in no man’s land at Moscow International Airport; and the utter failure of Congress to avoid the doubling of student loan interest rates on July 1. Everyone who pays attention to the news of the day found something to either praise or condemn.

In the background of all this activity was early progress on the passage of a few of the 12 FY 2014 appropriations bills. Although both Representative Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chair of the House Appropriations Committee, and Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, have insisted they want all bills considered under “regular order,” the bills being developed on both sides of the Capitol have little chance of compromise. The financial divide is just too great. For labor, health and human services, and education alone, the allocation in the Senate is $14 billion above the figure coming out of the House Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Subcommittee. The Senate markup will take place right after the July 4. The more generous allocation means the bill will be adopted, but it will be a purely partisan affair. In the House, the situation is so dire that a markup has not been scheduled is not anticipated. In spite of progress on the appropriations for transportation, housing, energy and water, agriculture and military construction and homeland Security, it is assumed that a continuing resolution will have to be enacted to keep the government operating after September 30.

The student loan drama escalated throughout the week and appeared to culminate in the announcement by Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) that most Senate Democrats believed that a doubling of interest rates was a better deal for students than compromising with the House proposal to convert the program to capped market rates. The White House also presented a market-based plan in the FY 2014 budget, but when war broke out between Democrats who are divided on the issue, the administration became strangely silent. Although the immediate impact on individual students is not great, the cumulative effect of such a large rate increase is enormous, a stark fact that is fueling the debate. Both sides decry the idea of allowing the government to profit from students’ pain by requiring them to pay too much interest on their student loan debt. Though  the 4th of July fireworks are over, you can expect fireworks to continue when Congress returns from recess and takes up this issue tomorrow.

Long-Term Trends in NAEP Math and Reading Scores
On June 26, the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) released a long-term trend assessment of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading and math scores for 9-, 13-, and 17-year olds. The report, The Nation’s Report Card: Trends in Academic Progress 2012, includes scores from the first assessment, administered in 1971, to the most recent, in 2012. The report’s comparison of scores over time provides a look at how America’s students are doing in comparison with previous generations. According to the trend report, gender gaps and achievement gaps between white students and other races, such as black and Hispanic, have narrowed over the four decades. Results also indicated that although the percentage of 17-year-olds whose parents finished college has increased, scores for students with parents who have experienced higher education have stayed flat, leading education experts to second-guess their supposition that increased parental engagement translates to better scores and academic improvement. The statistics also show a lack of improvement in reading and math scores for 17-year-olds, with the most recent scores collected in the 2012 assessment parallelling 1971 levels. Despite these and a few other notable concerns, the long-term trend assessment results display improvement in varying aspects and degrees across all ages and demographics measured since 1971. More info 

Hearing on the Federal Budget’s Impact on Children
The Senate Budget Committee recently held a hearing, “Investing in Our Future: The Impact of Federal Budget Decisions on Children.” Committee chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said in her opening statement that children’s well-being should be considered in the federal budget because placing the burden of sequestration on the next generation will hurt the nation’s children in the long term. Although she agrees with reducing the deficit, Murray stated that the proposed spending cuts to programs critical to child development, such as investments in education, are not the answer, and she recommends ending sequestration and reversing the cuts. More info (includes an archived recording of the hearing)

The Hamilton Project Explores College Access
On June 26, the Hamilton Project, affiliated with the Brookings Institution, hosted two roundtable discussions that focused on research by economist Carolyn Hoxby that has led to the establishment of the Expanding College Opportunity Project (ECO). Dr. Hoxby and colleagues at Stanford University examined the issue of high-achieving, low-income students failing to apply to attend college at “peer institutions.” These are schools where the applicant pool consists of students with similar grades and test scores but from higher income families. The research by Dr. Hoxby and her team pointed to a clear lack of information that led students to forgo higher aspirations. Dr. Hoxby and her colleagues identified 35,000 students who fell into this category, and they developed personalized mailings that included “how-to” information, fee waivers, and charts that provided key application dates for schools that appeared to be good matches for these students, given their geographic location, abilities, expressed goals, and aspirations. More info 

Impact of Fiscal Debate on Children
The New America Foundation recently hosted a panel discussion to examine the implications of the federal education and fiscal debates for children and families. The discussion began with an overview of the compounding impact of the Budget Control Act and sequestration on the federal budget. Jason Delisle, director of the foundation’s Federal Education Budget Project, framed the issue for the group by presenting current facts related to the existing caps on discretionary spending that are mandated by sequestration and the spending cap placed on future appropriations in the Budget Control Act. The combination, he explained, essentially erases all the education funding gains made through 2012 and takes education spending back to 2001–02 levels. This will not only have a direct impact on funding through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Title I, and Pell Grants, but it will have a significant impact on all other domestic discretionary spending because Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are all connected to mandatory spending and increases in that same time frame. The Urban Institute’s Eugene Steuerle presented key data that are tracked to show how funds are spent on children. He said that both Republicans and Democrats want to “play Santa” in their own way—Democrats with discretionary domestic spending (e.g., funding for health and education) and Republicans on defense spending. In the current scenario, he argued, neither wins. The session concluded with a discussion among the panelists. More info 

NCLB Waivers Approved for Alabama and New Hampshire
The Department of Education (ED) recently announced the approval of Alabama’s and New Hampshire’s waivers from the most onerous provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act in exchange for the states’ agreement to implement specific plans approved by ED. Currently, 47 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Bureau of Indian Education have requested waivers, and 39 states, along with D.C., have been approved. Waiver requests from six states are outstanding: the Bureau of Indian Education, Puerto Rico, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wyoming. Five states have yet to request waivers: California, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota (request withdrawn), and Vermont (request withdrawn). Read more  

Greater Flexibility for Waiver States
On June 18, in a letter to the chief state school officers, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said he would allow states with approved waivers flexibility with respect to the requirement to use student growth on state tests as a factor in personnel decisions until the 2016–17 academic year. States will have to apply for the extra flexibility, and the Department of Education (ED) will approve plans on a case-by-case basis. “To be very clear, this is not a pause or a moratorium,” Secretary Duncan said. Duncan also does not think that every state will take ED up on its offer. “Some states won’t seek that flexibility because they are already well ahead.” The administration began offering waivers in September of 2011 in an effort to relieve states of the most onerous provisions of No Child Left Behind in return for their agreement to implement certain reform measures. Since the administration’s announcement, 47 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Bureau of Indian Education have requested waivers. The new flexibility would apply only to states whose waiver requests were approved before the summer of 2012. This excludes states whose waivers were just approved: Alaska, Hawaii, and West Virginia. Also in response to complaints from state officials, ED is offering states flexibility to avoid “double testing” of students. Under the new flexibility, states can request to use just one test in schools—either a field test, designed to help work out the kinks in the new assessment system, or the regular state assessment. More info 

House Science Committee Highlights DOE Science Priorities
On June 18, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing to examine the Department of Energy’s (DOE) science and technology priorities and related management and policy challenges. The sole witness before the committee was the newly appointed secretary of energy, Ernest Moniz. Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) provided opening remarks, noting, “We are in a new revolution of energy research with America’s energy independence now attainable by the end of this century.” Smith posed the question of how America should prioritize the development of alternative forms of energy but added, “We should shift from costly subsidies for alternative energies to research and market-driven sources that can be used around the world.” More info 

Hearing on Workforce Investment Act
The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing on June 20 on the reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), “Developing a Skilled Workforce for a Competitive Economy: Reauthorizing the Workforce Investment Act.” The hearing provided HELP Committee members with an opportunity to voice their bipartisan support for the reauthorization effort in the face of dramatic changes to the workforce since WIA was passed in 1998. In his opening statement, Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) recognized that while most decisions about how best to meet the needs of the modern day workforce should be made at the state and local levels, it is critical that WIA be modernized to allow flexibility for local workforce systems to meet their communities’ unique needs while maintaining support for vulnerable populations. The need for specialized support and services is best exemplified when looking at the unemployment rate, since not all individuals are recovering from the Great Recession at the same rate. More info 

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