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Capitol Report: October 21, 2013

Capitol ReportBy Della B. Cronin

Sigh. It’s over. Kind of…

For anyone who wasn’t paying attention, an instant recap: The federal government spent October 1st and the first 16 days of fiscal year 2014 shut down. Education advocates and the country watched as Congressional leadership bickered with one another and the President.

Although the shutdown and what it was all about has been examined and reexamined, in the end, it looks as though House Republicans fared the worst in the fallout. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) found his own party difficult to manage and ultimately had to present an agreement to fund government operations and accommodate the country’s borrowing needs that required hefty support from Democrats for passage. That’s a major violation of the “Hastert Rule” (also known as the “majority of the majority” rule) and not the way that Boehner likes to do business. Only 87 Republicans voted with all Democrats to pass the bill. (It is worth noting that House Education and the Workforce Committee chair John Kline (R-Minn.) voted for the bill.)  Regardless, the federal government is back on the job, and will be at least until January 15, 2014. The deal also accommodates the country’s borrowing needs through February 7, 2014.

So, what’s next?  Well, unfortunately, the funding levels in the temporary bill continue to reflect the across-the-board cuts required by sequestration. And to make matter worse, for those worried about education and other domestic programs, a second round of required cuts is scheduled to take effect in January. Advocates hoping that longer-term spending issues can be figured out by a bipartisan budget conference committee comprising members from both the House and the Senate who, as part of the agreement on the shutdown, have been asked to hammer out a spending plan for what’s left of FY 2014 by December 13, 2013. Consequently, there will be more visits to Capitol Hill and more campaigns to paint an ugly picture of what sequestration will do to schools and communities absent intervention.

But January is a long way off, right?  In the short term, state education agencies, schools, and districts are wondering how they might be affected over the next few weeks by the shuttering of the Department of Education (ED) and other agencies. ED has to work through applications that were due on October 3—day three of the shutdown—for the Race to the Top competition for districts. ED will be giving winners a total of $120 million. In addition, applications that were due on October 16 for Race to the Top early learning challenge grants will have to be sorted and read. Schools that are arguably most affected by any pause in federal support—the so-called “federally impacted schools,” which are on or near federal reservations, serve large numbers of military families, or are otherwise significantly dependent on federal dollars—are quite anxious about receiving funds. Reports suggest that some schools might have had a hard time paying teachers if the shutdown had gone much longer.

On other policy issues of interest to math teachers and math educators, progress has been slight. The time spent bickering and waiting has meant that that little else got done. It also indicates that the prospects for bipartisan efforts to ward off divisive policy have suffered. For the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to move forward, the Senate has to move to the floor some version of the bill that was approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee in the summer. HELP Committee chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and ranking member Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) have said that they would like to see a bill on the floor but that they would like an open amendment process to govern the debate. In the Senate, that means weeks of floor time without assurance of passage for a bill that would then be negotiated with the House. The shutdown not only cost time but it also could have made all members of Congress less eager to tackle any controversial policy that could highlight partisan differences—or create vulnerability in next year’s midterm elections.

Despite the dysfunction in Washington and the collateral damage of recent weeks, some education policy issues could see action soon—including the America COMPETEs bill, changes to the Workforce Investment Act, and consideration of how to revise investments in Career and Technical Education. Other bills are slated for debate, and NCTM is keeping track of these movements. Having said that, we can add only that the last few weeks have served as a warning to advocates in education and other policy realms to expect the unexpected.

Della B. Cronin is with Washington Partners, LLC.

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