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Capitol Report: December 18, 2013

 U.S. Capitol Building (small)By Della B. Cronin

As the holidays approach, the education community in Washington is breathing a bit easier. Congress has reached an agreement that will avoid most of the additional cuts that were due to affect school districts during the 2014−15 school year. Assuming that the deal, struck by Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), is signed by the president, it would restore 87 percent of total spending on so-called domestic discretionary programs, including spending on K−12 education, according to the Committee for Education Funding. The deal sets overall spending levels. Now, congressional appropriators will have to determine how much to spend on each program, and everyone hopes that they will complete that work before January 15, when the current temporary spending bill that ended the October federal government shutdown expires.

No one is completely satisfied with the plan, a state of affairs that is often the sign of a good compromise. The plan would set spending levels at relatively flat rates over the next two years. That means no more blunt cuts forced by sequestration, but it also means little room for new initiatives—like the administration’s push for a big investment in early childhood education. In addition, sequestration will be an issue in two years, since it is the law of the land for a 10-year period. The Murray-Ryan plan gives lawmakers two years to figure out how to address future cuts. 

Although the agreement it isn’t a perfect plan in anyone’s eyes, and some changes to federal student aid programs are causing heartburn, the education community supports it and would like to see it signed as soon as possible. Setting the federal budget for the next two years will not only alleviate anxiety but also allow Congress to turn to other legislative matters—like the reauthorizations of the America COMPETES bill and the Higher Education Act. Furthermore, though observers were ready to say that there was no chance that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would see any additional consideration before next year’s mid-term elections, the budget deal does provide some hope on that front.

Over at the Department of Education, the agency’s recently released analysis questioning the value of the School Improvement Grant program has been found to be seriously flawed and will be revised. The rating system that the agency is pulling together for institutions of higher education has also come under fire. In addition, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been criticized for recent comments about the Common Core State Standards, which are being implemented in mathematics and reading. The dwindling number of states choosing to participate in the two assessment consortia is causing some concern at the White House. Adding to mix, the recent news related to the United States’ performance on PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) has some sounding alarmed and others suggesting the news isn’t all bad.

With all of these policy developments keeping NCTM and others in the education community busy, NCTM President Linda Gojak recently visited with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to discuss the Council’s policy concerns and to remind them that NCTM and its members are tremendous resources for them in their work. Congress will be talking about ways to help institutions improve teacher preparation programs and essential elements of effective professional development programs, and NCTM members and leadership can be helpful in these conversations.

The next year will be an interesting one on Capitol Hill. The recent agreement on the budget suggests that progress is possible on other issues that usually have bipartisan support—like education. NCTM is ready to help members of Congress discuss issues important to math teachers and teacher educators.

Della B. Cronin is with Washington Partners, LLC

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