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Legislative Update: July 24, 2013

Is it possible that the July 4 recess had a positive effect on relations between Senate Democrats and Republicans? Early last week, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was making strong threats about moving to the “nuclear option”—that is, changing Senate rules to limit the use of the filibuster. Frustrated by his inability to move presidential nominations for months, and in some instances years, because of Republican holds and opposition, Reid said he’d had enough. Tough words were exchanged between the majority leader and his minority counterpart, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.), and it appeared for a while that partisanship would get worse—not better. At the 11th hour, however, the parties came to an agreement to move the key nominations in question in exchange for withdrawing two administration nominees to the National Labor Relations Board. Crisis averted. By week’s end, three new cabinet secretaries were approved. It remains to be seen if this change in mood will persist, but it was an encouraging sign.

Off the Senate floor, the Appropriations Committee was at work trying to meet Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski’s (D-Md.) goal of passing all 12 subcommittee spending bills before the August recess. On a positive note, it looks as though she will achieve that goal. The bigger challenge will be getting those bills—most of which have moved forward only on party-line votes—to the Senate floor. The dramatic difference between the proposed funding in the 12 Senate bills and the discretionary spending cap in the Budget Control Act—a gap of more than $90 billion—will make it quite difficult to schedule floor debate and to find the 60 votes that will be necessary for passage. And it doesn’t look as though there will be any closing of that gap any time soon.  

House Approves ESEA Reauthorization Bill
Turning to activities in the House of Representatives, we find that education advocates spent last week preparing for something that hasn’t happened since 2001—a House debate of changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The floor debate on H.R. 5, the Student Success Act, began on July 18. Over 76 amendments were filed for consideration by the Rules Committee; 26 were found to be in order. The debate began last Thursday at noon and wrapped up Friday so that members could run to area airports. The debate was similar to the consideration of the bill by the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Republicans praised the bill for limiting the federal footprint and returning decision making about how to spend federal funding back to states and local school districts. Democrats were adamant in their opposition to the bill for reducing funding or converting it to block grants and abdicating responsibility for ensuring that Title I funding be spent to improve educational opportunities for low-income and other vulnerable populations.

The chamber was not very crowded during consideration of the bill, but debate grew heated more than once. During one exchange, Representative Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who managed much of the debate for the Democrats, grew weary of the Republicans’ repeated assertions that current K−12 federal policy imposes national standards and curriculum on states and districts, suggesting those concerned about the implementation of state standards pursue state-level office, since that is where those decisions are made. George Miller (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Education and the Workforce Committee, was mostly reserved in his remarks and demeanor—at least for him, but on Friday morning, he broke into one of his famous tirades—speaking very loudly, waving his hands and pounding his fists as he expressed his disdain for the bill and its retreat from the federal responsibility to ensure that all students have access to quality teachers and education.

In the days leading up to the debate, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) counted votes several times, and everyone expected a close vote without much crossover. Cantor’s biggest concern was keeping the most conservative Republicans on board with the bill despite their concerns that the bill still intrudes on local decisions. The final vote was 221-207. Twelve Republicans joined the Democrats in voting no. What’s the next step in the slow march to the president’s desk? Seeing what the Senate can do to move its reauthorization bill forward after the August recess.

More info. You can also watch an archived webcast of the floor debate.

Reviewing the E-Rate Program
The Senate Commerce, Justice, and Science Committee hosted a hearing on July 17, “E-Rate 2.0: Connecting Every Child to the Transformative Power of Technology.” Chairman John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) described the bipartisan support for the E-Rate program when it was enacted in 1998 with the endorsement of former Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). Since 1998, the E-Rate program has provided $30 billion to connect the majority of schools to the Internet. Before the implementation of the E-Rate program, only 14 percent of all schools had Internet connectivity—a figure that dropped to 5 percent for Title I schools. Today, more than 92 percent of schools and 95 percent of the poorest classrooms are connected to the Internet. “E-Rate is also connecting our nation’s libraries … which remain the centers of our communities, and libraries give kids and adults the opportunity to look for work, do their homework, and no one is without [Internet] connection or at a disadvantage,” Senator Rockefeller said. Ranking member John Thune (R-S.D.) agreed, voicing support for reforming the current E-Rate program to “better reflect today’s digital reality” but said he believes this reform can be accomplished within the funds currently available for the program. Sheryl Abshire, chief technology officer at Calcasieu Parish School System in Louisiana, strongly supported the E-Rate program and encouraged the committee to increase E-Rate’s annual financial support. “We are facing cutbacks that will jeopardize the program,” Abshire claimed, noting that additional funding is required to meet increased demands for the service and for better Internet speed. Patrick Finn, senior vice president of Cisco Systems, made three recommendations to update the E-Rate program:

  1. Increase funding levels to meet current demand.
  2. Establish minimum bandwidth requirements based on the size of the school.
  3. Create a distinction between priority 1 and priority 2 within the law.

Overall, senators attending the hearing concurred on the success of the program and looked forward to updating the program to meet current needs. More info 

First Round of School Turnaround AmeriCorps Grants Announced 
On July 17, the Department of Education (ED) and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) announced the 13 grant recipients participating in the new School Turnaround AmeriCorps program, an effort aiming to improve persistently underachieving schools in the nation. The announcement came on the heels of President Obama’s creation of a new federal task force composed of representatives from cabinet agencies charged to identify how the public and private sectors can partner to “support national service as a strategy for tackling national priorities,” with the School Turnaround AmeriCorps as an example of the collaboration expected out of the task force. School Turnaround AmeriCorps members will work in schools implementing school turnaround interventions as required by ED’s School Improvement Grant program or as required through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act flexibility. “In order to ensure that every student receives a quality education, we need to do all that we can to turn around low-performing schools across the country,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said. “Today’s announcement highlights the progress ED and CNCS are making to increase educational opportunities for thousands of students in disadvantaged communities. As this important partnership continues to move forward, it will remain focused on using innovative strategies to help schools put children on the pathway to success.” Fifteen million dollars total will be invested by both agencies over three years to fund the program. More info  

Measuring 12th-Grade Academic Preparedness
On July 9, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 12th Grade Preparedness Commission hosted a symposium featuring a panel of education experts to discuss the commission’s research on the NAEP’s role as an indicator of college and job training preparedness. The commission’s goal is to help NAEP develop a way to transform grade 12 reading and mathematics scores measuring academic achievement into an indicator of preparedness for postsecondary education and training. Areas of research have examined the content of NAEP assessments, statistical relationships, standards of preparedness, and benchmarks for performance to determine whether the scores are transferable. The panel discussed recent preparedness research that has found disparities between the qualifications for college preparedness versus academic preparedness for career training programs. While suggestions and recommendations varied, no panelist opposed the idea of using the NAEP as the indicator for academic preparedness. Learn more.

House and Senate Debate CJS Appropriations
Last week both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees completed work on their Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS) spending bills. Both CJS appropriations subcommittee chairs claimed that their bills take into account critical federal functions while recognizing current fiscal realities. House CJS Subcommittee chairman Frank Wolf (R-Va.) stated, “We have focused limited resources on the most critical areas: fighting crime and terrorism, including cyber-attacks; improving weather forecasts and warnings; and boosting U.S. competitiveness and job creation by investing in science exports and manufacturing.” Senate CJS subcommittee chairwoman Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) agreed with her Republican counterpart in the House on these priorities and explained, “The CJS bill is first and foremost a public safety bill that funds federal, state, and local law enforcement who protect us from criminals, scammers, terrorists, predators, and hackers.” In addition, the bill focuses on increasing research investments and results at key science agencies. Specifically, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is funded at $948 million in the Senate bill, an amount that is $163 million more than the House level of $784 million. This funding will permit implementation of a set of initiatives that will “catalyze innovations, develop measurements, and provide technical resources to promote the global competitiveness of U.S. manufacturers and aspiring start-ups.” An additional difference between the two measures is in the funding levels for the National Science Foundation (NSF). The Senate bill provides $7.4 billion for NSF, $430 million more than the House’s level of $7 billion. Consequently, the increase will provide “510 more competitive grants supporting 5,900 more technicians, teachers, scientists, and students in fiscal year 2014,” according to the Senate Appropriations Committee’s press release. The two measures also largely rejected the administration’s proposal to reorganize federal investments in STEM education programs. Appropriators took issue with the sweeping changes and urged a more measured approach to reorganizing the programs. Although it is unknown when either bill will make it to the floor of the bills’ respective chambers, the debate in each subcommittee was cordial and overwhelmingly bipartisan. The ranking members of each subcommittee agreed that each bill was a “good product” and the result of bipartisan input; unfortunately, the disagreement about the overall allocation remains the sticking point. Learn more about the Senate and the House bill.

Higher Education Innovation
“Keeping College within Reach: Improving Higher Education through Innovation” was a hearing held on July 9 by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce to give members an opportunity to discuss new initiatives and policies. The hearing examined efforts designed to expand higher education access, such as competency-based education, online coursework, and prior learning assessments (PLA). Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) opened the hearing with a brief overview of the changing nature of higher education and the need to adapt to these changes in order to promote access, success, and affordability. Kline noted that student demographics are shifting; the percentage of traditional students attaining higher education is decreasing while nontraditional students have become the fastest growing segment in postsecondary education. Ranking member George Miller (D-Calif.) used his opening statement as a platform to discuss Congress’s failure to come to an agreement on the subsidized Stafford loan interest rate, an issue that Congress has been debating for the last month. Miller proclaimed that “Republicans have blocked any chance to help students,” and instead are solely focused on enacting a plan that “makes students pay off the deficit.” Following the witnesses’ testimonies, members of the committee addressed the four witnesses, and nearly each member prefaced their questions by speaking about the current student loan debate—the Democrats imploring Republicans to sign the petition for H.R. 2574 to extend the 3.4 percent rate, and the Republicans arguing that their proposal is very similar to the president’s plan as well as the bipartisan Senate proposal, and that it is the Democrats who are being unreasonable. More info (includes an archived recording of the hearing).

New Report on Improving Career and Technical Education
The New America Foundation recently hosted the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for the launch of its new report on postsecondary career, and technical education (CTE), career-focused associate degrees, postsecondary certificates, and industry certifications in the United States. A Skills beyond School Review of the United States found three factors that may serve as barriers to postsecondary attainment:

  1. Basic skills of high school graduates are weak compared with those of students in other OECD nations.
  2. Decentralization provides many routes to the same occupation, and this can confuse students.
  3. The cost of higher education in the United States continues to rise despite public financial investments.

To address these key concerns, the report’s authors offer an overarching recommendation: “While taking advantage of the vibrant diversity of the U.S. postsecondary CTE system, balance the decentralized approach with a strategic pursuit of more quality, coherence, and transparency.” Central to the success of this recommendation is ensuring that students view CTE programs as “good value for money,” and that the credentials they earn will lead to lucrative employment opportunities. Additional recommendations are to “enhance CTE and workplace learning at high school, and use prior learning assessment for adults” and to “continue to develop crosswalks between apprenticeships and other postsecondary institutions and programs.” Read the report.

Rural After-School Programs
The Senate Afterschool Caucus, working in collaboration with the Afterschool Alliance, hosted a briefing on July 11 that highlighted how the federal 21st Century Community Learning Center (21st CCLC) initiative supports quality after-school and summer learning programs in the nation’s rural communities. The briefing featured three strong school–community partnerships in rural Iowa, West Virginia, and Minnesota that are supporting student success, helping working families, and fostering community development through out-of-school programs. The speakers also all agreed that their 21st CCLC grant funds have helped them with parent engagement strategies. Presenter Sandy Klaus, principal of Starmont Elementary School in Arlington, Iowa, made the point that her school’s after-school program has helped to change parents’ negative perceptions of their own school experience by giving them the opportunity to experience the inclusive and nurturing environment of their children’s after-school program. An additional challenge faced by all the presenters was paying for transportation costs. Shelby Dettinger, grant programs officer from World Vision Appalachia in Philippi, West Virginia, solved transportation issues by developing a partnership with the county’s public transportation system, funded through their 21st CCLC grant. Lastly, the speakers stressed that in rural communities where poverty is also an overwhelming factor facing families, before-school, after-school, and summer learning programs help close the “opportunity gap.” Jennifer A. Skuza, assistant dean at the Center for Youth Development at the University of Minnesota Extension in Minneapolis, observed that after-school programs benefit children who are not currently thriving by offering them enriching experiences that their families would not otherwise be able to afford, such as field trips to cultural events, tutoring assistance, and access to hands-on experiential learning activities. Dettinger added, “Kids in rural and poor areas require an intervention in a nonthreatening manner,” and community-based organizations need to understand this in order to be successful partners. More info 

FY 2014 Budget Chart with Senate 

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