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Capitol Report: January 16, 2014

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

As the New Year began on Capitol Hill, Congress found itself focused on some of the work it wasn’t able to finish in 2013. Most notably, those in charge of the federal purse are debating how to divvy up more than $1 trillion for federal programs to be spent during fiscal year 2014, which began October 1 of last year. Just before Congress left town for the holidays, Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) pulled together the Bipartisan Budget Agreement, which reflects broad terms for federal spending for the next two years.

While the “omnibus” spending bill—meaning one bill that combines many different spending proposals—is still being reviewed by members and staff, Congress is expected to pass it shortly. The education community has been reading hundreds of pages of legislation to figure out how much each program they care about might receive, as well as to see if there are any policy changes in the bill that affect schools and colleges. The big education headlines are that the bill restores $1.6 billion in sequester cuts to Department of Education (ED) programs. It also fully restores a $401 million cut to Head Start that resulted from the sequester and includes $500 million for Early Head Start–Child Care Partnerships.

As for the programs that NCTM and its members are concerned about, the Department of Education’s Math and Science Partnership program would receive $149.7 million under the measure, even though the department’s overall funding was cut by approximately $4 billion. Spending on teacher professional development overall would increase slightly to $2.4 billion; investments in teacher preparation remain unchanged at just over $40 million. The National Science Foundation’s Education and Human Resources Directorate, which runs the agency’s education programs and investments, including the Math Science Partnerships that have recently been reorganized under the new STEM-C program, would receive $846 million. The increases in this directorate are more than others at the foundation will see, which suggests appropriators are conveying support for foundation education activities.

In addition, the bill reinforces Congress’s concerns with the Administration’s plan to reorganize federal STEM education programs, and it includes language directing the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to start over and work with the STEM education community to develop a new proposal. The plan also ignores the president’s ideas for new STEM education programs at the Department of Education that were included in the FY 2014 budget request, such as a new STEM Innovation Network program and the STEM Master Teacher Corps, although ED has been tinkering with some existing programs, such as the Teacher Incentive Fund, to get at some of the goals of those bigger, more expensive program ideas.

As for well-known Administration priorities, such as Race to the Top and the Investing in Innovation Programs, the former is cut in half in FY 2014 and has a new emphasis on early learning. The Investing in Innovation program (i3) would receive the same amount it did in FY 2013—$141.6 million.

Education advocates were restrained in their enthusiasm for the bill as the details came out, but understandably somewhat relieved. The bill restores two-thirds of the education sequester cuts, but overall FY 2014 discretionary funding for the Department of Education would be $811 million below the FY 2012 spending level—a time before the word “sequester” became commonplace in policy circles. In fact, discretionary education spending—excluding Pell grants, which were exempt from the sequester cut—would be below the FY 2006 level, even though schools and colleges are serving millions of more students now. The STEM and research communities are also concerned that the bill fails to fully restore the sequester cuts to critical research funding at the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, which, they argue, harm the work being done by research universities and graduate students.

Once Congress is past this budgetary work, the process will start all over again. President Obama will deliver this year’s State of the Union address on January 28, and the White House is reporting that the speech will focus on efforts to address income inequality. Undoubtedly education will be at least a part of that conversation, and representatives of NCTM will be meeting with White House leaders prior to the address to discuss what the education portions of that plan might be. After the address, the White House will deliver its FY 2015 budget request to Capitol Hill, although the plan will be late again this year. It is generally expected by lawmakers the first week of February, but last year they didn’t see the FY 2014 request until April. This year, it will be at least a month late. Of course, with midterm elections facing all members of the House and a third of senators, no one will be looking for partisan budget fights late in the year, so they will want to work quickly on the FY 2015 plan, and the two-year Murray-Ryan agreement will help in that regard.

Aside from spending, education advocates are still hoping other pieces of education legislation might be considered this year—Career and Technical Education programs, America COMPETES, the Higher Education Act, and the Workforce Investment Act are among the laws other than the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that are contenders for some consideration. Since Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and House Education and the Workforce Committee Ranking Member George Miller (D-Calif.) are leaving Congress at the end of this year, and House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) will have to give up his post on that panel due to term limits or request a waiver from his party, there is some consternation in the education community concerning who might be the leaders on education matters on Capitol Hill in 2015. In the meantime, current leaders will work to get done what can get done in 2014.

Della B. Cronin is with Washington Partners, LLC

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