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Legislative Update: January 16, 2014

On Capitol Hill, members and staff are busily reading hundreds of pages of proposed legislation that will govern spending for FY 2014—the fiscal year that started on October 1, 2013. Since striking a bipartisan deal on overall spending in December—one of the stipulations of the agreement that brought the sixteen-day government shutdown to an end—House and Senate appropriators have been working on the details of the annual spending plan. While there was originally a deadline of January 15 to finish that work, Congress added three days to the current temporary spending bill that is supporting federal government operations. As usual, the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (LHHS) funding plan was one of the last to be worked out. While the spending bill for education would restore a large portion of the cuts that were the result of sequestration, the education community finds itself being thankful that the cuts aren’t as bad as they could be—not a great result for the community.

While the budget negotiations are of primary concern, other important issues were debated in the Senate last week. A cloture vote was secured on a bill to extend emergency unemployment benefits for three months, allowing a debate. The Senate discussion is focused on finding the $6 billion necessary to pay for this extension of benefits. Absent that offset, the final bill is unlikely to get any Republican support in the Senate and will certainly not be taken up in the House. Another bill close to the finish line is the Agriculture Reauthorization Act. How deeply Congress will agree to cut the food stamp program is the final point of contention with that legislation. The fact that a search is on for offsets for unemployment benefits makes this issue of particular concern as food stamps are an important benefit for those people dependent on unemployment insurance.

It was announced recently that President Obama will address Congress with his State of the Union speech on January 28. The president’s budget proposal generally comes the week following that address. However, the budget will be at least 30 days late due to Congress’ inability to come up with a timely budget for FY 2014. In spite of this, the budget debate this year is likely to move more smoothly given the fact that the overall spending level has already been agreed to by all members of Congress, and there are midterm elections on the horizon.

Teacher Leadership Initiative
The National Education Association (NEA), the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), and the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) announced the launch of a joint Teacher Leadership Initiative (TLC) to recruit, prepare, and support a new generation of teacher leaders. The goal of this endeavor—starting with 150 teachers and growing to 1,000 by 2017—is to offer selected on-site and online professional training in the areas of instructional leadership, policy leadership, and union leadership. At the kickoff event, the three CEOs of the founding organizations spoke about their vision of a national movement led by accomplished teacher voices with expertise at its core. Dennis Van Roekel, president of NEA, noted that today’s principals are overburdened with responsibility and are asking teachers to take on more leadership roles in schools to address this concern. It is critical, however, that these teachers have the required expertise and the training that they desire if this new vision for schools is to be realized. In the past, it was only through union membership that teachers found leadership opportunities. TLC is designed to expand those options. The initial TLC teacher class is from Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Mississippi. Participants in the program will work in cohorts with partners that include state and local NEA chapters and state and local education foundations and organizations. Over time, thousands of teachers will have the opportunity to participate, ultimately developing the necessary expertise to engage in leadership roles within their schools.

School Discipline Guidance Package
The U.S. Department of Education (ED), in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), released a school discipline guidance package that will assist states, districts, and schools in developing policies and practices that enhance school climate and comply with federal law. The guidance package consists of four resources:

  1. A Dear Colleague letter on civil rights and discipline that provides guidance on how schools can discipline their students without discriminating against them on the basis of race, color, or national origin;
  2. A Guiding Principles document that utilizes current research to provide key actions that can help guide state and local efforts to improve school atmosphere and discipline;
  3. The Directory of Federal School Climate and Discipline Resources, which provides extensive federal technical assistance and related resources; and
  4. The Compendium of School Discipline Laws and Regulations, an online catalogue of pertinent laws and regulations in each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

More info 

Promise Zones Launched in 5 Communities
Five communities were announced as the first “Promise Zones” as part of the Obama Administration’s initiative to improve challenged communities of the middle class. President Obama highlighted the larger initiative in his 2013 State of the Union Address; its overall goals include job creation, economic security, expanded educational opportunities, increased access to affordable housing, and improved public safety. The first five zones—San Antonio, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Southeastern Kentucky, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma—have produced strategic plans detailing how local business and community leaders will be leveraged to expand opportunities and promote the goals of the initiative. In return these leaders will be given an advantage in a number of federal grant applications. Cecilia Muñoz, Domestic Policy Council Director, asserted that through this program, the government “can be a much better partner in helping local leaders develop policies that improve education, protect the most vulnerable, and encourage entrepreneurial spirit.” More info 

Brookings Institution Discusses School Choice
The Brookings Institution hosted an event titled “The Value of School Choice.” Grover J. (Russ) Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy and author of the third annual Brookings report, The Education Choice and Competition Index, began the event by summarizing the findings from his report on school choice. The report examines school districts nationwide and ranks them based on 13 criteria that determine the level and quality of choice they provide. For the second year in a row, the Recovery District in New Orleans and the New York City School Districts ranked first and second, respectively, in this report. Whitehurst then introduced House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), a vocal champion of school choice. Cantor praised school choice as the answer to lifting people out of poverty and asserted, “It is my personal goal that in 10 years, every child in American will have education opportunity through school choice no matter where they live.” View the report.

STEM Education Leaders and Students
The House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Technology convened a hearing to examine public-private partnerships that are focused on improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in the country. The subcommittee has held a number of these hearings during the 113th Congress to highlight various STEM education initiatives, discuss the appropriate role of the federal government in improving STEM education, and debate how the $3 billion that is spent across more than 13 different federal agencies might yield better results. Conservative members of the panel have asserted, repeatedly, that federal spending results are questionable given that achievement still disappoints. In recent international testing results, American students ranked 26th in math and 21st in science academic achievement. The hearing featured two panels of witnesses—the first included four leaders of STEM education initiatives, and the second was composed of students who shared their experiences and opinions about how to better engage them and their peers in the disciplines that are so important to the country’s economy. Dean Kamen, famed inventor and founder of the FIRST Robotics program, urged members to help him bring his programs to more kids by giving resource-challenged schools public dollars to do so. Hadi Partovi, CEO and co-founder of Code.org, shared the great success of his organization’s “Hour of Code,” which exposed more than 20 million students to coding and computer science in December, and asked Congress to eliminate policy barriers that make it difficult for computer science to work its way into what is taught in all K–12 schools. The witnesses emphasized that there is no “silver bullet” to cure what ails STEM education in the country, but they stated that better teacher preparation, intentional afterschool programming, private-public partnerships, and better connections with K–12 schools and leaders are key to improving results. More info 

New America Foundation Scrutinizes Parent PLUS Loans 
The New America Foundation hosted a panel discussion on the Parent PLUS loan program and released a report, “The Parent Trap: Parent PLUS Loans and Intergenerational Borrowing,” that presented new data, a primer, and recommendations for reforming the program. The report suggests that policymakers should consider one of three options:

  1. Add an “Ability to Pay” metric to the Parent PLUS credit check;
  2. Cap Parent PLUS loans; or
  3. End the Parent PLUS loan program and increase dependent student loan limits.  

The report refers to previous recommendations from the New America Foundation to establish a cumulative Stafford Loan limit for undergraduate students at $40,000—both dependent and independent. This loan limit recommendation was offered along with many others in the organization’s report for the Gates Foundation on reforming the entire federal student aid system. The panelists agreed on the need for more data and that reforms to PLUS should be viewed in conjunction with other changes to aid and loan programs, ideally through the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Libby Nelson, education reporter at Politico Pro, noted that despite the apparent consensus on a holistic approach, reforms to PLUS were set to happen within the near future through negotiated rulemaking. Kevin Fudge, educational/financial aid advisor at American Student Assistance (ASA), asserted that families were not best served by for-profit colleges with attractive marketing as well as they were served by private nonprofits. Steve Gunderson, president and CEO of Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, disagreed with Fudge and the report and stated that such policies would greatly restrict opportunity for low-income students. He also pointed to the federal government’s “profits” as the real problem with student lending and called for Income Based Repayment (IBR) for Parent PLUS along with lower interest rates. Cheryl Smith, senior vice president at the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), did not confront Fudge, but she offered many of the same policy recommendations as Gunderson and said that recent changes that restricted PLUS availability for some borrowers were imprudent. More info 

Million Women Mentors Launch Initiative
STEMconnector hosted the Launch of Million Women Mentors (MWM). The National Press Club event introduced mentor partnerships, highlighted affiliate achievements, and challenged organizations to support the one million women in STEM initiative. Edie Fraser, CEO of STEMconnector, remarked that women in STEM fields earn, on average, $0.92 to every $1.00 that men in STEM careers earn. She compared that average to women who work in non-STEM careers who make, on average, $0.77 per $1.00 earned by men (with minority women making as little as $0.54 per $1.00 earned by men). The goal of MWM is to begin a movement of mentorship in which young girls have access to female mentors who can encourage and direct them to information regarding pathways to successful careers in the STEM fields that are currently underrepresented by women. MWM found that 74 percent of STEM workers are male while only 26 percent are female, and that 12 of 100 female bachelor students graduate with a STEM major and of those 12 only three continue to work in STEM fields ten years after graduation. Global corporations such as Walmart, Accenture, and Sodexo were represented at the Mentor Launch in support of Million Women Mentors’ efforts. More info 

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