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Legislative Update: August 7, 2013

Congress adjourned on August 2 for a six-week summer recess. When the members return on September 9, nine days will be left on the month’s legislative calendar. That schedule does not allow much time to complete action on the fiscal year (FY) 2014 budget. A continuing resolution (CR) effective October 1 is almost certain. With luck, the CR will fund all agencies at the FY 2013 level, but given the budget tensions on Capitol Hill these days, it’s difficult to say for sure what will happen. As lawmakers prepare to leave town, floor action has centered on nominations, solving the student loan interest rate issue, and passing a FY 2014 transportation and housing and urban development (THUD) appropriations bill.

The debate surrounding nominations is significant because it highlights a bipartisan compromise among senators to avoid the so-called “nuclear option” of limiting use of the filibuster by the minority. The student loan issue similarly reflects bipartisan and bicameral compromise in the decision to base interest rates on federal student loans on financial markets but cap the possible increases. The THUD debate is significant because nothing brings members from both parties together like funding for roads and bridges. Members are far from singing “Kumbaya,” but the cooperative spirit is encouraging.

Senate Appropriations Committee chair Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) worked hard to get Republican support for the THUD measure recently adopted by her committee. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has hurried to bring the bill to the floor for a vote before the six GOP members who voted with the Democrats in committee are persuaded by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to change their minds. It would be a significant bipartisan victory for Mikulski to keep those members on board since the funding level in the THUD bill exceeds the budget caps and would support arguments to increase overall funding for the year.

Turning to the House, we find that on August 1, Mikulski’s counterpart—Hal Rogers (R-Ky.)—was forced to end debate on a slimmed down version of a THUD bill that was more than $10 billion below the Senate measure. Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said the House would take up the bill again in September. Rogers expressed a different view, saying that, in his view, failure to pass the THUD bill means “that the House has made its choice: sequestration—and its unrealistic and ill-conceived discretionary cuts—must be brought to an end.” Wait... What?! Yes, that was the Republican House Appropriations Committee chair Rogers saying that the House must concede that the deep cuts that the House budget resolution requires—$90 billion less than the Senate measure—is unworkable.

On that happy note, education advocates, who are extremely concerned about the impact of those cuts on funding for all domestic programs, can perhaps relax and enjoy the August recess. 2013 Race to the Top—District Competition

On July 30, the Department of Education (ED) announced details of the 2013 Race to the Top—District Competition, which aims to support local initiatives that will lead to improved student achievement as well as educator effectiveness. One hundred and twenty million dollars will be made available for the competition. According to ED’s press release, “This year’s competition invites applicants to demonstrate how they can personalize education for all students and is aimed squarely at classrooms and the all-important relationship between teachers and students.” Applicants from all districts, rural and non-rural, are welcome to apply,  districts in states that have as well as those in states that have not won previous Race to the Top competitions are eligible to receive grants. “The Race to the Top—District competition is an opportunity for trailblazing districts across the country to implement models of personalized learning so that every child graduates college and career ready,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “The program is designed to support teachers and school leaders in their use of innovative strategies as we seek to build a stronger future for America’s students.” Prospective applicants are asked to submit their intent to apply by August 23, and applications are due October 2. Awards are expected to be announced by December 31. More info 

Assessing Student Achievement in the Early Grades
The New America Foundation hosted a panel discussion on July 30 on a recent report, An Ocean of Unknowns. Released in May, the report examines district and state approaches to using student achievement data for evaluating preK–grade 3 teachers and the risks and opportunities associated with each. The report states that the “student learning objectives” (SLOs) approach is the most commonly used method in teacher evaluation systems in the early grades. SLOs require teachers and administrators to set individualized goals for students on the basis of diagnostic tests and to create an assessment to measure the defined objective. Panelists discussed the development of teacher evaluation systems and agreed that SLOs will continue to be the most popular measure of student learning for early grades. Learn more.

Student Loan Bill Heads to the President’s Desk
On July 31, the House of Representatives approved H.R. 1911, the Smarter Solutions for Students Act (the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act, as amended by the Senate), sending it to the president for his signature. The back-and-forth banter between parties on this issue died down, allowing the legislation to pass both chambers with bipartisan support, ending the drawn-out process of addressing the issue of the interest rates related to federal Stafford loans. The interest rate doubled on July 1 for new loans, and this new compromise will make several changes to Stafford loans. According to the House Education and the Workforce Committee’s news release, H.R. 1911 will “calculate undergraduate Stafford loans using a formula based on the 10-year treasury note plus 2.05 percent; calculate graduate Stafford loans using a formula based on the 10-year treasury note plus 3.6 percent; calculate graduate and parent PLUS loans using a formula based on the 10-year treasury note plus 4.6 percent; and protect borrowers in high interest rate environments by including an 8.25 percent interest rate cap on Stafford loans made to undergraduates, a 9.5 percent cap on Stafford loans made to graduate students, and a 10.5 percent cap on PLUS loans.” Read more.

Workforce Investment Act of 2013
The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee hosted a well-attended markup session on July 31 to debate and amend legislation to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act of 2013 (WIA). The act was first passed by Congress in 1998 and has been due for reauthorization since 2003. The current iteration of the bill was introduced by committee chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), ranking member Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), and Senators Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). For many months, bipartisan negotiations took place to bring this bill before the Senate HELP Committee, where it passed on a bipartisan vote of 18 to 3. Only three Republicans voted against the bill: Senators Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), and Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) did not cast a vote. Although aspects of this bill, such as its definitions of who is eligible for certain programs, responsibilities of the workforce boards, and adult training and education, remain relatively similar to corresponding aspects of the current law, Title V of WIA reauthorizes the Vocational Rehabilitation Act and makes significant changes related to the federal agencies overseeing the programs under Title V as well as to certain vocational rehabilitation (VR) services. Specifically, the bill would shift the Rehabilitation Services Administration, currently located in the Department of Education, to the Department of Labor. Chairman Harkin opened the hearing, stating, “The reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act is long overdue, and this bipartisan bill will help workers, including young adults with disabilities, get access to the job placement, training services, and supports they need.” More info 

First Focus Releases Children’s Budget 2013 
First Focus recently held an event to release its annual Children’s Budget report, which tracks federal spending on children throughout the year to provide an understanding of how much is being spent on which programs and how the amounts compare with those spent in prior years. The release of Chidren’s Budget 2013 featured remarks from Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus; former Congressman Mike Castle (R-Del.); and Roberto Rodriguez, special assistant to the president for education policy. Lesley discussed the report’s findings. More than 8.5 million children in America live in households that experience food insecurity, 1.1 million children were identified as homeless, 1,560 children died as a result of abuse and neglect, and 22 percent of America’s children live in poverty. Because of these staggering statistics, Lesley explained, the more than 180 federal programs that invest in children are critical to the health and well-being of the youngest Americans. According to this year’s findings, just 7.8 percent of the federal budget is supporting children, investments for children have declined 16 percent since 2010, and estimates indicate that in 2013 $4.2 billion will be cut from funding for children as a result of sequestration. More info 

Digital Learning
The Alliance for Excellent Education recently held a Project 24 webinar, “The Device Debate in Digital Learning.” Panelists discussed their school districts’ experiences with digital learning and the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) strategy. Debate over digital learning and instruction has focused on the concept of BYOD. Many school districts initially steer away from personal devices and ban them from school grounds. However, if implemented with integrity, panelists say BYOD is an effective strategy. Questions and answers focused on concerns related to student equity and funding. Specifically, participants were concerned about how digital learning programs and BYOD could be implemented in schools with free and reduced-price lunch populations. Unfortunately, no panelist had a solution for providing every student with a device to bring home. More info 

Fordham Discusses Accountability System
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute hosted a live event and webcast on July 25 with education policy experts and advocates to examine the assumption that a growing numbers of parents, educators, and school administrators are calling for a local “opt-out” from state tests and accountability systems. Key questions were raised and discussed such as the following:

  • Is this an opt-out or a cop-out?
  • Would students benefit from a system that their own teachers and principals devised?
  • Should all schools be offered an opt-out alternative, one in which they propose to be held accountable to a different set of measures?
  • What about opt-outs for high-achieving schools or schools with good reason to be different?
  • Would such a system move us toward or away from the goals of the Common Core?

The event highlighted the diversity of opinions about a variety of topics, including whether and how accountability should continue to be built into the U.S. public education system, how testing students to determine their proficiency in reading and math has led to a public backlash against assessments in general. and the reality that many students still continue to struggle to meet benchmark standards set and defined by states and will not be prepared to enter college or find competitive work. Watch the event.

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