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Legislative Update: November 19, 2013

Education policy was a hot topic on Capitol Hill last week. The House Education and the Workforce Committee and the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held back-to-back hearings on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) to examine how to streamline the application system for federal student aid and make it more user-friendly. There actually appeared to be some consensus on what changes might be necessary and a willingness to consider radical modifications to the system. It is far too early to suggest that this could be a bipartisan undertaking, but there is some glimmer of hope.

The comity that marked the House Education and the Workforce Committee higher education hearing quickly broke down when attention turned to the impact of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on schools and school employees. While Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) foresaw incalculable harm to many employees, ranking member George Miller (D-Calif.) saw a system that will ultimately lead to better health care for all.

A degree of bipartisanship was evident in last week’s unveiling of legislative proposals in the House and Senate to expand access to prekindergarten programs. The early childhood education proposal has been anticipated since President Obama highlighted its importance earlier this year in his State of the Union Address. Representative Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) joined ranking member Miller in supporting a proposal that embraces many of the administration’s ideas. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) couldn’t find a Republican in the Senate to join him in introducing a bill, but the event that touted the new plans did feature Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and actress Jennifer Garner, who also visited a school in Washington, D.C., during her visit.

Also on the agenda was the second in-person meeting of the budget conferees charged with working out a spending plan for FY 2014, finding a substitute for the sequester and exploring possible new revenues to fund critical government services. Although the conversation was polite, little if any progress toward a compromise could be detected. Several deadlines are approaching and are key to avoiding another government shutdown. The first is December 2, when appropriators would like to begin working out a conference agreement for specific government agency budgets. Appropriators need a “top line” agreement on the total amount of spending for the year to get started—this will fall somewhere between $1.047 trillion and $967 billion. Next is the December 15 deadline, when the full work of the conference committee must be complete—and essentially that means answering the question, What happens to the sequester? Although failing to meet these deadlines has no specific consequences, you can assume that there will be a real mess if they can’t get that much accomplished.

In slightly good news on the financial front, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released the latest deficit figures at the Budget Committee meeting last Wednesday, and the deficit continues to decline at a rapid rate. For the month of October, the federal government overspent its budget by only $91 billion, as compared with $120 billion in the same month in 2012. Overall, the deficit has been reduced by 50 percent over the last four years. The reasons for this steady decline are complicated, but factors include the lowering of unemployment benefits, the impact of previously agreed-on cuts in spending, and a solid month of economic growth. If this trend continues, perhaps Congress can be credited with solving the long-term financial crisis ahead if nothing is done.

Early Learning Bill
On November 13, Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, George Miller (R-Calif), ranking member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and Representative Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) introduced the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, an early childhood education bill that, over a 10-year time frame, aims to expand and improve early learning opportunities to improve kindergarten readiness for children from birth to age five. Joining the members of Congress at the event to unveil the new legislation were Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as well as actress Jennifer Garner. Specifically, the bill would establish a new federal-state partnership to provide access to high-quality prekindergarten programs for four-year-old children from families earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) and encourage states to spend their own funds to support preschool for young children with family incomes above that income level. Additionally, the legislation would establish partnerships between Early Head Start programs and child-care providers to help child-care centers and in-home providers improve the quality of coordinated, comprehensive services for infants and toddlers through age three. The bill would also amend the Child Care Development Block Grant to allow the Secretary of Health and Human Services to reserve $100 million to support child-care training and licensure and improve health and safety standards to improve the quality of child-care programs and ensure that children receive care for at least a year before their eligibility has to be  recertified. Finally, the bill expresses a “sense of Congress” that Congress should continue to fund evidence-based, voluntary home visitation programs under the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program. More info  

Report on the Impact of Sequestration
Non-Defense Discretionary (NDD) United, a coalition working to protect NDD funding from additional cuts to all programs that fall under this umbrella, hosted a briefing on November 13 to highlight the release of the report Faces of Austerity: How Budget Cuts Have Made Us Sicker, Poorer, and Less Secure. This report shares stories from hundreds of organizations across sectors about how cuts to NDD funds in the federal budget have affected citizens throughout the country. The briefing hosted panelists representing Head Start programs, university-based research, public parks, and a variety of other sectors that have felt the impact of cuts to NDD federal funds. The moderator, Emily Holubowich, co-chair of NDD United, explained that despite the fact that sequestration was only a 5 percent cut to all federal programs, it cut much deeper than merely 5 percent in some sectors, and in many cases the cuts were closer to 25, 50, and in some cases, even 100 percent, once they rippled out into the communities. Complete report 

Student Access to Excellent Teachers
On November 13, the Center for American Progress (CAP) presented and discussed a new report, Giving Every Student Access to Excellent Teachers: A Vision for Focusing Federal Investments in Education. The report emphasizes the need to expand the availability of exemplary educators to all students and concentrates on extending the reach of excellent teachers. It asserts the value of the teaching profession, advocating rewarding superb educators with higher pay and refocusing formula grants to include higher eligibility standards and greater accountability requirements. Furthermore, it urges federal policymakers to provide more money for public education, as well as to allocate education funds more appropriately by paying closer attention to research and development programs. Panelists noted that access to a high-quality education and extraordinary teachers should be a civil right of every student. More info 

Student Aid Simplification
On November 13–14, the House Education and the Workforce Committee and the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee convened hearings on simplifying the student financial aid system. The two hearings featured a similar message with witnesses often agreeing across the board on questions from senators and representatives. The echo chamber across the two hearings was not surprising, however, sincew at least five of the seven hearing witnesses have been working on the same project, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Reimagining Aid Delivery and Design (RADD) Project. The hearings covered a wide range of topics in aid simplification, including simplifying the tax code (with the prospect of raising revenues), simplifying the grant system (with the prospect of expanding Pell Grants), and simplifying the federal loan programs. Learn more.

New NCLB Waiver Renewal Guidelines
The Department of Education (ED) sent a letter to state education chiefs on November 14 that outlined new instructions for states looking to renew their No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers. ED’s new instructions have been described as a “backing-off approach” in comparison with the original draft guidance issued in August. ED’s original NCLB waiver renewal instructions required states to do the following:

  1. Take additional steps to ensure the equitable distribution of effective teachers for at-risk students;
  2. Use Title II money for professional development to prepare teachers to implement college- and career-ready standards for all students.

Both of these guidelines have since been revoked, and the waiver renewal process has been streamlined to states writing a letter to ED describing their waiver implementation progress and the resulting improvements in student achievement in the state. ED officials have asserted that the new NCLB waiver renewal instructions were intended to appease states by easing their workload as they implement new reforms, such as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), accountability systems, and new teacher and principal evaluations. States have until the end of February to apply for a one-year NCLB waiver renewal. More info 

Senate Caucus, Girls Inc., and Afterschool Alliance
The Senate Afterschool Caucus, Girls Inc., and the Afterschool Alliance joined together to host a briefing on Thursday, “Ensuring That Tomorrow’s Leaders are Strong, Smart and Bold: The Importance of All-Girls’ Afterschool Programming.” Representative Luke Messer (R-Ind.) opened the briefing by speaking about his strong support for Girls Inc. programming as a result of his personal experience of having his own daughters attend a Girls Inc. afterschool program in Indiana. He noted that even with the current fiscal challenges, “we cannot be pennywise and pound foolish,” but instead Americans must invest in discretionary programs that make a difference. Jodi Grant, executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, agreed with all the speakers that after-school programs that help to establish a culture of success for girls—who are often considered at risk for not graduating from high school or pursuing postsecondary options—is critical in helping young girls overcome gender, economic, and social barriers. More info 

STEM Education Examined on Capitol Hill
Last week, two hearings held by House committees addressed STEM education. On November 13, a subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hosted a hearing that focused on reauthorizing the research and STEM education programs included in the America COMPETES program. James Brown, STEM Education Coalition executive director, was on the panel of witnesses, and he spoke about the need for the federal government to invest adequately in effective STEM education programs to ensure that the country preserves its competitiveness in a global economy. He also voiced support for coordinating federal STEM education investments, although the Republican-proposed bill to reauthorize America COMPETES would specifically prohibit the White House from proceeding with its plans to reorganize STEM education programs. Although the bill does propose coordination and the elimination of duplicative programs, it clearly is taking issue with the administration’s approach to doing the same. On November 15, a subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on manufacturing to explore how federal programs might support a healthier manufacturing industry. A representative of Microsoft spoke about the importance of giving young people opportunities to study high-demand fields, including expanding the availability of computer science education in the nation’s high schools. For more information on these hearings, including witness testimony and archived webcasts, visit the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology website and the Energy and Commerce Committee website.

Nation’s Report Card Results 
On November 7, the results from the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessments were released by the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB). Known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” NAEP is the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas. Because NAEP assessments are administered uniformly, using the same sets of test booklets across the nation, NAEP results serve as a common metric for all states and selected urban districts. The assessment stays essentially the same from year to year, with only carefully documented changes. This permits NAEP to provide a clear picture of student academic progress over time. The results from the 2013 mathematics and reading assessments showed moderate progress for fourth and eighth graders. Average mathematics scores for both groups were higher in 2013 than in all previous assessment years, and reading scores were higher in 2013 in comparison with all previous assessments at grade 8, and all but the 2011 assessment at grade 4. “The 2013 NAEP report card provides encouraging but modest signs of progress in reading and math for U.S. students,” stated Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, adding, “Given the rapid and comprehensive changes that America’s educators are implementing in classrooms across the nation, it is to their credit that we are seeing the strongest performance in the history of the NAEP.” Improvements were evident among racial and ethnic groups, with black and Hispanic students continuing to make gains; however, white students made gains as well, so the overall achievement gap has not narrowed since 2011. Also, higher-achieving students made more progress in mathematics and reading than they did in 2011. Among the states, Tennessee, the District of Columbia (D.C.), and Hawaii showed the most significant gains in overall scores in both subject areas. Aggressive reformers have led education in D.C. and Tennessee during the period, but other states identified as “reform leaders,” such as Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, did not demonstrate the same gains between 2011 and 2013. With uneven state progress, it appears that reform isn’t a “silver bullet.” Visit here for a complete analysis of the 2013 results.

Hearing on America COMPETES
On November 6, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee convened a hearing, “America COMPETES: Science and the U.S. Economy,” to discuss the reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act. The hearing examined why the federal government should invest in research and development and STEM education and how these investments drive innovation and the U.S. economy. More info  

New Teacher Assessment
The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) recently announced a new performance-based assessment—edTPA—to measure the classroom readiness of teachers. During a briefing at the National Press Club, AACTE executive director Sharon Robinson highlighted the findings from a new summary report, including the information that edTPA is the first nationally available, educator-designed performance assessment for teachers entering teaching. Panelists shared their perspectives on the ways in which subject-specific assessment, available in 27 different teaching fields, provides evidence regarding teacher candidates’ experience with planning, instruction, and student assessment. The assessment also systematically examines an authentic cycle of teaching aimed at specific learning goals. More info 

White House Presents Budget Update
On November 6, the White House held an off-the-record conference call about the president’s budget request with Brian Deese, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Deese began the discussion by reiterating the president’s standing principle not to “allow certain members of Congress to hold the faith and credit of the United States as a bargaining chip.” Deese added that the president plans to reduce the deficit in a “smart and balanced way,” which would meet the bipartisan goal of $4 trillion in total deficit reduction. That goal would partly be achieved through the president’s plan of saving $1 trillion by “responsibly reforming entitlement programs,” implementing spending cuts, and raising revenue through tax reform. Deese cited these ideas from President Obama’s fiscal year (FY) 2014 budget proposal, which also included reductions in the deficit through immigration reform and the farm bill. Deese highlighted the president’s continuous efforts to create jobs, increase the growth of the economy, and end the sequester. Before closing, Deese mentioned the release of a report from the Department of the Treasury and the OMB on the budget results for FY 2013 that stated the final 2013 deficit to be $680 billion, which was $409 billion less than the 2012 deficit and $293 billion less than the forecast of President Obama’s April budget proposal. Deese ended the conference call by assuring the public that the president’s principles and vision for the country have not changed and that job creation and economic growth will be reflected in the President’s FY 2015 budget proposal. Learn more about the President’s FY 2014 budget initiatives.

Highest-Rated Applications for i3 2013 Competition
The Department of Education (ED) recently announced the 25 highest-rated-applications (HRAs) in the fourth round of the Investing in Innovation (i3) competition. These HRAs will receive more than $135 million to “expand innovative practices designed to improve student achievement,” according to an ED press release. To receive federal funding, the HRAs must secure matching funds by December 11, 2013. Of the 25 HRAs, 18 are in the “Development” category and seven are in the “Validation” category; notably, no potential grantees are in the “Scale-up” category. “The fourth round of the i3 competition continues to demonstrate that there are organizations across the country that are eager to implement a wide range of innovative and effective practices to improve educational outcomes for students,” said Nadya Chinoy Dabby, acting assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement. “Each year, we are able to grow the portfolio of solutions and the body of evidence that supports these practices.” For more information, go to: http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-department-education-announces-highest-rated-applications-investing-innovatio.

Obama Announces Nominees for Postsecondary Education Posts
The Obama administration recently announced two key appointments for higher education at the Department of Education—Ted Mitchell as under secretary and Ericka Miller as assistant secretary for postsecondary education. Mitchell has been working in K–12 policy as the head of the New Schools Venture Fund. He does, however, have firsthand experience in higher education administration, since he also served as the president of Occidental College. Mitchell will be replacing Martha Kanter, a former community college president, who will be returning to academia later this year. More than a year after the departure of Eduardo Ochoa, the Obama administration yesterday nominated Miller as the new assistant secretary for postsecondary education, the office of postsecondary education, which manages higher education policy, including the regulatory process. Miller is the vice president for operations and strategic leadership at Education Trust, an advocacy organization based in Washington. Miller has been focused on elementary and secondary education at Education Trust, but the organization has also been active in higher education issues including commenting on Oregon’s “Pay It Forward” proposal. If confirmed, Mitchell and Miller would form the team of higher education leaders at the Department of Education with Jamie Studley, former president of Swathmore College, who is currently serving as a deputy under secretary, along with Jeff Appel. Studley’s position requires no confirmation. In the past, deputy under secretary has been a position that could be filled by a political figure while avoiding a confirmation fight. Read more. 

First Open Forum on Higher Education Ratings Plan
The Department of Education (ED) recently hosted the first of several open forums on its proposal to rate institutions of higher education. The forum took place at California State University—Dominguez Hills. At an event in Washington, Deputy Undersecretary Jamie Studley reiterated the administration’s current timeline for its plan:

  1. Release a proposed rating system by the spring of next year
  2. Receive feedback and modify the plan over the course of a year
  3. Begin using (and publicizing) the ratings system by 2015
  4. Design and implement a performance-funding model based on these ratings by 2018.

The event featured comments from higher education representatives, students, and members of the public. ED officials did not respond until the end, when they noted that the comments were greatly appreciated and would influence their efforts going forward. The comments were wide-ranging and often addressed the general topics of college costs and student debt. Speakers generally commended the goals of the administration’s proposal but expressed concern over the impact on institutions enrolling low-income and first-generation students. Students addressing the proposal specifically were generally supportive, if skeptical and concerned about stigmas attached to the ratings system, while college officials warned against government ratings entirely. The department has plans for public events throughout November, as well as in 2014. An open forum is scheduled at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge on November 21. More info 

New Paper on “College for All” Debate 
College Summit released a white paper on November 4, Smart Shoppers: The End of the “College for All” Debate. The paper’s central thesis is that all students need some form of postsecondary education, so  “Is college right for everyone?” should no longer be a question for debate. The experience of David Turner, a graduate of California State University—Dominguez Hills and a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, served as a case study in the paper, and Turner was also a speaker at the briefing. Turner has a remarkable heartbreaking and heartwarming story of family illness that shows the power of perseverance and untapped potential. The paper uses the tale effectively as a springboard for advocating policies that encourage more individualized college counseling. College Summit also makes several recommendations. On the one hand, policymakers  should—

  • recognize that information sharing can influence action;
  • rack college outcomes at the state level;
  • enact high standards for college readiness;
  • require higher education institutions to be more transparent;
  • use federal funding strategically; and
  • partner with businesses to engage and support students.

On the other hand, schools should—

  • build a college-directed culture;
  • offer logistical support; and
  • proactively recruit and support low-income students for college.

In addition to a panel discussion on the ideas put forth in the paper and how to tie higher education and financial literacy practices and policies, the briefing featured remarks from Bill Eggers, an author responsible for research and thought leadership at Deloitte, and Jamie Studley, deputy under secretary at the Department of Education. More info 

Pathways to Success
On November 7, the National Journal, the College Board, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation cosponsored a briefing, “The Next America: Pathways to Success.” The briefing focused on the primary barriers to assuring greater access to and affordability of college for Latino and African American youth and adults. Topics addressed within the panels and with audience participants ranged over funding and financial aid (including Pell grants and subsidized loans); access for minority students to K–12 science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses; access to Advanced Placement courses and other accelerated classes; the impact of poverty; improving the quality of K–12 public education in disadvantaged communities; experiential and paid internships for youth and young adults; SAT vs. SAT-optional admittance to college; universal pre-K and quality preschool; and immigration reform. The robust discussion raised important policy and practice issues that demonstrate how the complexity and integral connections of federal, state, and local policymaking will directly impact the U.S. economy as America shifts to a primarily Latino population by 2030. For video and more information, visit here.

National Center for Family Literacy Announces Rebranding
The National Center for Family Literacy announced a name change on November 5. The organization will now be called the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL). The group stated that the change reflects its mission to promote lifelong learning that does not end with becoming literate. Sharon Darling, president and founder of NCFL, noted, “Literacy will always be a cornerstone of what we do. This move to learning is about being more inclusive and strengthening ties with the families and communities we serve by bringing our mission to life in everyday language.” In addition to sporting a new name, the organization plans to launch several new initiatives, including a weekly publication, Families and Learning NOW, and a Families Learning Summit and National Conference on Family Literacy, as well as a new website. More info 

Senate Releases 2014 Calendar 
The Senate recently released its 2014 calendar. January 6 will be the first day of the second session of the 113th Congress for the Senate. Senators will be in their home states the following weeks:

  • Jan. 20–24 — Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday is Jan. 20.
  • Feb. 17–21 — Presidents’ Day is Feb. 17.
  • March 17–21.
  • April 14–25 — Passover begins April 15; Good Friday is April 18; and Easter is April 20.
  • May 26–May 30 — Memorial Day is May 26.
  • June 30–July 4 — Independence Day is July 4.
  • Aug. 4–Sep. 5 — Labor Day: Sept. 1. 

More info 

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