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Capitol Report: November 19, 2013

Capitol ReportBy Della B. Cronin

Education policy announcements usually come without glitz or don’t generate much interest in the general public, but recently actress Jennifer Garner joined Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Representative George Miller (D-Calif.), and Representative Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) to tout the need for more and better early childhood education for the country’s youngest students. Although the attention was exciting, once advocates had read the proposal, they realized that it mimics many of the administration’s ideas about how to expand access to prekindergarten programs for 4-year olds. President Obama talked about expanding early childhood education in his State of the Union address earlier this year, and many groups have pushed for action on that front. NCTM has long argued that children who have access to better educational opportunities as early as possible are more likely to succeed in their studies of mathematics, and the Council has supported policies with those goals. The proposal is welcome, but it now joins the long list of educational policy issues waiting for action—if you don’t count the big decisions about spending that are coming in December.

Although the shutdown of the federal government and the persistent debate about the size and cost of the government continue to dominate the airwaves and the conversations on Capitol Hill, education committees are busy holding hearings on issues that they hope might get some attention from leadership this year. Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is stalled as Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, works to come to some agreement on a schedule and process for revising the K–12 education statute with his colleague, ranking committee member Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Meanwhile, the committee is holding hearings on higher education issues. Student aid programs, in particular, are of interest to the panel, with its members concerned about the treatment of cash-strapped students and the paperwork burdens associated with federal student aid programs. The House Education and the Workforce Committee has held similar hearings, and its members want a much simpler federal student aid application process.

What else? The House has already held one hearing on career and technical education (CTE) and is gearing up for another. The hearings seem to be focusing on ensuring a connection between federal CTE policies and the needs of the country’s employers. And, in case there wasn’t enough controversy about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the House also hosted a hearing, “The Effects of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on Schools, Colleges, and Universities.” It’s unlikely that the focus of the hearing was how great the legislation is for educational institutions.

While the education committees are busy holding hearings, NCTM and other STEM education advocates have also been kept busy by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, which is starting to consider how to rewrite the America COMPETEs Act. Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has released a proposal that would profoundly affect the peer review process at federal research agencies. His Democratic counterpart, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) has a very different proposal, which would preserve most current programs and not dramatically change the way that agencies decide to award research monies. Although STEM education investments are addressed in both proposals, they are not the controversial issues in the larger conversation. NCTM is reviewing the competing plans and deciding how and when to weigh in with House lawmakers. The Senate has also begun holding hearings on how to improve the law but isn’t as far along as the House in developing legislative proposals. Some in the research and STEM education communities hope that a Senate proposal can bridge the partisan gulf between the two House plans and maybe forge a path for progress on America COMPETEs before the end of next year.

Although it may not seem that much is getting done on Capitol Hill, a great deal of activity is keeping NCTM and the education advocacy community busy. The next few weeks will be focused on the larger spending conversation and the results of meetings between the House and Senate Budget Committees. By the middle of December, everyone will have a better sense of the appetite for compromise on those issues, which could influence the ability to move any of the other pending education policy issues forward. 

Della B. Cronin is with Washington Partners, LLC.

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