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Legislative Update: February 4, 2014

The president delivered his fifth State of the Union (SOTU) address last week. With the largest audience he is likely to address this year, President Obama outlined his vision for the second legislative session of the 113th Congress, but for many education advocates, it sounded a lot like the vision for 2013’s first legislative session. That is not to say that education policy was overlooked. In fact, it was prominent in the president’s remarks and recommendations. While restoring income equality was the general theme of the SOTU, the accomplishment of that goal will require investments in education at every turn.

The president restated his plea for preschool funding and a call for universal education of 4-year-olds. This is a popular idea that many states have supported with increased investments, but the president has not been able to persuade Congress yet. Revamping career and technical education as well as retooling programs for the long-term unemployed was also requested. This too is an idea popular with Congress, and while there has been some action on this front in the House, there has been no movement in the Senate. A familiar education priority was outlined again—college access and affordability. The president’s idea for a Race to the Top for higher education was overlooked in the FY 2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act, but the White House push remains. An overburdened student loan borrower sat in the First Lady’s box to help highlight this issue. STEM education and raising academic standards were also mentioned. On points where additional funding has proved elusive, the president talked about previous accomplishments and action in states.

Normally, the SOTU outlines the budget priorities that are sent to Congress the following week in a formal budget request. That will not be the case this year. The FY 2015 budget will not reach Capitol Hill until March 4. Given that the top line number for spending is already agreed to and the sequester remains on hold, what legislators and advocates will look for are the priorities from the Administration at a time when funding is tight.

The president expressed some frustration with the unwillingness of Congress to act on his priorities. The tone of the president’s speech can best be summed up by the following key passage: “American does not stand still—and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

This tone and these remarks generated an interesting response from the House Republican leadership. In a letter to the president on Friday, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) and others stated their willingness to work with him and outlined several areas where they saw common ground. Let’s hope that was a genuine olive branch and not something covered with hemlock or poison ivy.

College Access
The House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training held a hearing titled, “Keeping College Within Reach: Sharing Best Practices for Serving Low-income and First Generation Students.” Subcommittee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) chaired the hearing, which focused on best practices for college access, retention, and success in advance of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). The witnesses discussed strategies that their institutions undertook to increase college access and retention, including summer bridge programs, intensive counseling of students, collaborations with local businesses, and financial literacy for both students and parents throughout their college careers. Alex Garrido, an immigrant student pursuing his master’s degree, stressed the importance of the DREAM Act in enabling him to attend college. All witnesses had similar recommendations for HEA improvements, such as simplifying the process for applying for financial aid and continuing to support successful programs such as TRIO and GEAR UP. More info  

Alexander Choice Bill
The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) hosted an event, “Senators Lamar Alexander and Tim Scott Unveil Ambitious Proposals to Expand School Choice,” to discuss a conservative agenda to address poverty and inequality. Arthur Brooks, president of AEI, convened the event by noting the relevance of the senators’ legislation being introduced during National School Choice Week and asserting that “nothing is more central to these (AEI’s) moral goals than an education system that works for all people in our society.” Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) began the discussion by outlining his new school choice bill, the Scholarship for Kids Act of 2014 (S. 1968). Alexander’s new bill would work as a scholarship for low-income students to choose a school that best fits them or to help supplement an educational program of their choice. If authorized, the bill would consolidate more than 80 federal education programs—only keeping intact school lunch programs and education research funding—into one $24 billion funding stream. The new legislation would support 11 million low-income students and provide each student with $2,100 in annual federal support to help pay for tuition at the private school of their choice, supplement their public charter school costs, or purchase tutoring or homeschooling materials. Alexander based his charter school legislation on the success of previous higher education legislation—such as Pell grants and the GI bill—that allowed money to follow students to the school of their choice, creating a free-market education system. More info 

Charter Schools Caucus Discusses Special Education 
The co-chairs of the Senate Charter Schools Caucus, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) hosted a Hill briefing to encourage a new dialogue about charter schools and the eligibility of students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Eva Kemp-Melder, a fellow on staff with Senator Landrieu, began the discussion by outlining the goal of the briefing, which was to shed light on the advancements made in charter schools regarding educating students with disabilities and to open a dialogue about the ongoing impediments and challenges that charter authorizers, principals, teachers, and parents must strive to improve and overcome. Nina Rees, executive director of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), moderated a panel discussion, beginning with Paul O’Neil, co-director of the newly launched National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS). O’Neil spoke directly to the point that although charters have been in existence for more than 20 years, charters have not made enough progress in addressing the access to equitable education of students with disabilities. He highlighted a new report, co-produced by NCSECS and NAPCS—Improving Accessing and Creating Exceptional Education Opportunities for Students With Disabilities. The report emphasizes that although charters are freer to innovate in an educational setting—compared to traditional public schools—such innovation has not translated to better serving the spectrum of services that students with disabilities require. He further noted that, while student needs are diverse and complex, charters have both a responsibility and an opportunity to serve these students. The panel concluded with Rees encouraging a strong dialogue between all entities to ensure that good recommendations are made to Congress and the Administration. More info 

College Value and Affordability 
The Center for American Progress (CAP) hosted an event, “Making College Affordable and Creating Value for Students: Accountability and Postsecondary Education Reform,” to discuss the skyrocketing costs of higher education and the consequent burden of debt, which Sophia Zaman of the United States Student Association called “the crisis of our generation.” David Bergeron, vice president of postsecondary education policy at CAP, echoed Obama’s State of the Union address, noting that “only 38 percent of students entering four-year degree programs will finish on time.” Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii)—two of the youngest members of the Senate and ones for whom college affordability issues continue to resonate—discussed their proposed legislation intended to promote innovation as well as accountability for colleges, university systems, and training centers and to combat the “rising cost and stagnating quality of American postsecondary education.” Murphy cautioned against the possible unintended consequences of accountability systems, such as institutions creating hostile environments for disadvantaged and low-performing students in order to make themselves look good for accountability metrics. “We must admit the status quo is not acceptable,” Senator Murphy said. Schatz stated that universities and colleges have “no special right to federal dollars.” If the institution is not attempting to provide affordable education, the senator argued, they shouldn’t receive funding. More info  

Subprime Learning and the Effects of the Recession
The New America Foundation hosted a briefing of a new report, “Subprime Learning: Early Education in America since the Great Recession,” that analyzes the impact of various components of early education policy and its implementation in the years following the Great Recession. The report begins by claiming that “in the wake of a financial crisis triggered by subprime lending, too many children in America have been experiencing subprime learning.” The report used symbols to diagnose an area or program of interest as improving, in flux, in stasis, ignored, or imperiled. Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation, led much of the discussion and participated in the closing panel, with input from early childhood education policy experts. More info  

ED and NSF Nominees
The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held an executive session to confirm multiple nominees for the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation. The committee voted on several of the nominees in 2013, but the nominations had to be resubmitted by the White House for consideration in 2014. The HELP Committee confirmed the following nominees:

  • Michael Yudin to serve as assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services in the Department of Education (ED);
  • James Cole, Jr., to serve as general counsel at ED; James Shelton III to serve as deputy secretary of education at ED;
  • Theodore Reed Mitchell to serve as under secretary of education at ED;
  • Ericka Miller to serve as assistant secretary for postsecondary education, ED;
  • and France Cordova to serve as director of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

After the executive session, chairman of the Senate HELP Committee Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) asserted that the five confirmed appointees at ED “will be a great asset to the department and help further its work to expand and improve our country’s education opportunities, and help ensure that every student has access to a quality education.” He furthered his remarks by stating that France Cordova is a well-qualified candidate to serve as director of NSF and would do a great job promoting the progress and prosperity of science.” All the confirmed nominees will have to wait for full confirmation until the full Senate votes on their nomination. More info  

The Changing Role of Teachers Unions
The Center for American Progress (CAP) hosted an event, “The Changing Role of Teachers Unions: Ensuring High Quality Public Education for America’s Students.” Neera Tanden, president of CAP, began the discussion by stressing the importance of bringing teachers to the table to achieve successful education reform and asserting, “Change must be made with teachers, not to them.” In his keynote presentation, Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association (NEA), echoed Tanden’s sentiments in stating that teachers “need to be a part of the solution because we are part of the system.” Van Roekel emphasized the need for national collaboration to share best practices in teaching. After his remarks, Van Roekel joined a panel discussion lead by moderator Carmel Martin, executive vice president of Policy at CAP. Other participants included Tammy Wawro, president of the Iowa State Education Association; Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association; Elena Silva, senior associate at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; and Richard Lee Colvin, senior associate at Cross & Joftus. Wawro noted that in Iowa, there is a movement to get unions more involved in instruction and collaboration; Toner chimed in that his usual response when asked by his members, “Are we a union or a professional association?” is “Both.” Silva noted that there is still an overall feeling of mistrust by teachers when it comes to change because teachers are not granted space to fail. She observed that a pervasive climate of stress from teachers, leaders, and parents gets in the way of school progress. Van Roekel finished the discussion by citing new teacher retention problems and the need for an effective teacher recruitment system that puts substance and meaning behind teacher licensure. More info 

Early Childhood Literacy
Advocates for Literacy hosted a webinar, “Literacy Begins at Birth,” to discuss the importance of early childhood literacy and to provide quality examples of how school districts are implementing grant-funded programs to incorporate literacy at the early levels of school. Shannon Ayers, research professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research, began the webinar by discussing what quality early-childhood literacy should look like in a classroom. Ayers stressed the importance of small group instruction and exposure to less common vocabulary in the development of children’s literacy skills. She asserted that “letter knowledge” is one of the best predictors of later reading and spelling abilities. She further noted that playful learning around letters—learning that is both project-based and inquiry-based—gives children real experience and context to learn. Ayers mentioned that literacy leaders are needed to help strengthen early childhood literacy. Adele Robinson, associate executive director at the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), defined “early childhood” as birth through age eight. Robinson noted that many federal programs exist that are not specific to literacy but still play a role in youth development and how children learn to read. Some examples she provided were: Child Care and Development Block Grants (CCDBG), Early Head Start, Head Start, Title I, and home visiting. Lynn Hamilton, principal of Kaufman Elementary School in Louisiana, gave a presentation focused on the Striving Readers Literacy Grant, which provides schools with a literacy specialist and a literacy interventionist. She further noted that the DIBELS assessment, which assesses the acquisition of K–6 literacy skills, showed that the grant’s interventions helped her students perform much better than local schools that did not receive additional intervention assistance. More info about early childhood literacy.

Increasing College Opportunities
The president and first lady met with presidents of more than 80 colleges and universities in an effort to increase college opportunities for low-income students. At the summit, the president outlined more than 100 new commitments to expand college opportunity, and the leaders of higher education in attendance were asked to commit to new actions in one of the crucial areas for improving opportunities for college:

  1. Connect more low-income students to the college that is right for them, and ensure that more of them graduate;
  2. Increase the pool of students preparing for college through early intervention;
  3. Level the playing field in college advising and SAT/ACT test preparation; and
  4. Strengthen remediation to help academically underprepared students progress through and complete college.

The president’s announcement was followed by press releases from more than 100 colleges and 40 organizations that announced intentions to build on existing efforts to increase college opportunities for all. A few initiatives to note: College Board President David Coleman committed to sending four college application fee waivers to every student who also received a fee waiver to take the SAT; Marshall College and the University of Iowa pledged to increase financial aid for students; Knox College and Kalamazoo College committed to increasing admissions for Pell Grant recipients; and numerous colleges pledged to make transfer credits more flexible and to recruit more minority students. The president’s new college opportunity initiative would work in tandem with his pledge to make college more affordable for middle class families and to lead the world in college graduation rates by 2020. More info 

FY 2014 Omnibus Budget Details
Each year, we pull together a chart to detail the contents of the appropriations bills that affect education stakeholders. The task gets more complicated as the budget process does, and as programs are combined, eliminated, or ignored, depending on the year. Check out the 2014 Budget Chart.

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