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Capitol Report: October 3, 2013

Capitol ReportBy Della B. Cronin

In case you haven’t heard, the theatrics in Washington have hit an all-time high. The result? The federal government has shut down. After threats and posturing by both parties in both chambers, and despite the fact that those represented by Congress said they thought a federal government shutdown would be absurd, on midnight, September 30, a shutdown is exactly what happened. Although the issues that have brought the country to this juncture are not about education—they are about spending and partisan wrangling over the president’s health care reform policy—the result will certainly affect federal education programs and the employees who manage them.

As a shutdown loomed, the Department of Education (ED) shared its contingency plans with the community. Not many of the department’s employees have been spared the furloughs caused by the shutdown. Over 90 percent of ED’s 4,225 employees were immediately furloughed, and most won’t come back until the funding crisis is resolved. Luckily, many schools and colleges won’t feel an immediate effect, assuming that the crisis is resolved quickly. Federal dollars will continue to flow to both K–12 schools and higher education interests. If the shutdown lasts a while, though, it has the potential to lead to administrative headaches associated with paperwork and reporting requirements and some check-writing issues for colleges and students receiving student aid funds. ED has shared its shutdown plan and warned that getting any questions answered during the shutdown will be difficult.

Additional ramifications are likely to include delays in the planned “listening tour” meetings with higher education stakeholders on the president’s proposed college ratings, and the postponement of a handful of hearings planned on education issues on Capitol Hill. Of course, the longer a shutdown lasts, the more trouble there will be for educators across the country. Extended lapses in federal funding to the states and districts that rely on it will eventually have real effects. The real damage to education spending could come later. In addition to resolving federal spending for the fiscal year that began October 1, the Congress has to decide how to address spending caps and the sequester, as well as the federal debt ceiling.

Against this backdrop, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a speech at the National Press Club in Washington hours before the shutdown. It was a little more serious than the interview he recently gave on The Colbert Report. Speaking for the administration, Duncan accused Congress of putting politics ahead of governing, and he challenged moderate Republicans to oppose the efforts of Tea Party conservatives on budget policy and other issues. After delivering remarks on the timely policy issues, he turned to what must have been his planned remarks and discussed education policy more generally, saying that federal dollars spent on education should be considered investments versus expenses. He touted what he considers to be the achievements of President Obama on education, including the effects of the Race to the Top program, and he urged listeners to help the agency examine how to address early childhood education and college costs.

After delivering his prepared remarks, the secretary answered questions from reporters, including queries about why the Common Core State Standards have become so controversial, particularly with locally organized conservative activists. He said that the state-developed standards have become a lightning-rod among partisans because of what he termed “political silliness,” but praised teachers and administrators who are getting busy with the implementation of the standards despite the sniping. He was also asked how he was helping to win over Capitol Hill Republicans in his efforts to support the president’s early childhood education initiative. Senators Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) are working on legislation to support many of the president’s ideas, but Senator Harkin has said he’d like to get a Republican colleague to support the proposal before introducing the legislation. That could prove difficult.

Secretary Duncan left a somewhat deflated audience of education stakeholders at the event. Recent weeks have seen a number of education policy developments, with the House hosting hearings on career and technical education, higher education programs, and education research, but the politics of a shutdown could have long-lasting effects that would make any further bipartisanship on education difficult to achieve before the 2014 election cycle. The recent high drama in Washington could leave the education community with little to show for it.

Della B. Cronin is with Washington Partners, LLC.

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