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Capitol Report: September 5, 2013

Capitol ReportBy Della B. Cronin

As classrooms fill up with students and teachers, and football games replace swim meets, Congress will return to Washington and the business of legislating on September 9. Although foreign policy will require debate and decisions immediately, eventually Congress will have to turn to the matter of federal spending, since the current fiscal year ends September 30—which is not very far away. Just before lawmakers left for the August recess, congressional appropriators gave some encouraging signs about improvements in the funding levels for education associated with the current sequester. NCTM and its allies in the education community will be urging lawmakers to invest adequately in programs important to math teachers and teacher educators.

Although it seems long ago, a flurry of action on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) occurred before the summer break. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee approved a reauthorization proposal, and the House passed the Student Success Act (HR 5) after a partisan debate of the measure, which would significantly roll back the federal government’s role in K–12 education. There is hope that the Senate will debate the proposal approved by its education committee this fall, but other education issues might steal congressional attention, like the Workforce Investment Act, higher education issues, or educational research.

President Obama hit the road in August to draw attention to the importance of postsecondary study and unveil proposals for controlling college costs and rewarding higher education institutions that buck the trend of significant annual tuition increases. Since taking office, President Obama has emphasized making college more affordable and assisting students who are struggling with unmanageable college debt. During a two-day bus tour in August, President Obama laid out a new plan, “Making College Affordable.” The proposal would create a new ratings system and attempt to leverage the federal government’s role as holder of the purse strings in an effort to lower tuition costs and funnel dollars to schools that are considered to be providing the “best value” for students. The White House proposal has a number of elements, including tying financial aid to college performance, starting with publishing new college ratings before the 2015 school year; challenging states to fund public colleges based on performance; and holding students and colleges receiving student aid responsible for making progress toward a degree. The president also aims to give consumers clear, transparent information on college performance to help them make sound decisions.

The details of the proposals are reportedly forthcoming, and the administration has pledged to work with the numerous stakeholders affected. Tying student aid to performance metrics is arguably the key aspect of the proposal and certainly the most controversial, and it would require congressional approval. Nearly all the key higher education constituencies agree that improved and accessible information is desperately needed, but they also point to the importance of using the right data and presenting it appropriately. The negotiations over new metrics and measuring institutions of higher education against their peers will be going on against the backdrop of the early stages of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). If the Department of Education is perceived as moving too aggressively with its new ratings system, stakeholders may turn to Congress.

While NCTM and others gauge the prospects for action on ESEA and determine what interests they might have in the president’s proposed higher education reforms, another education policy issue may make its appearance in the congressional fray. The Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA), first enacted in 2002, is in dire need of revising. The statute governs the Department of Education’s role in research on what works in education and could be a relatively easy piece of education law for Congress to debate and get to the president’s desk. Although it isn’t nearly as controversial as ESEA or HEA, its treatment of “scientifically based research” did cause the education community some heartburn as it was being implemented, since it suggested that randomized controlled trials should be the gold standard in education research—a bar that is difficult to reach, and, some argued, comes with moral hazards. The bill and the issues that it addresses offer opportunities for bipartisan support, and stakeholders are already discussing with the Capitol Hill community what a new law might look like.

As the country heads back to school, Congress returns to Washington with a to-do list loaded with policy decisions and debates that will affect math teachers and classrooms. NCTM will continue to weigh in with lawmakers on how to meet the needs of its members.

Della Cronin is with Washington Partners, LLC

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