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Capitol Report: April 17, 2014

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

Just before Congress left Washington for its two-week spring recess, legislators stirred up up a flurry of action on a handful of education policies. The House Education and the Workforce Committee approved two bills—with bipartisan support, no less! The Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act (H.R. 10) and the Strengthening Education through Research Act (H.R. 4366) both passed the committee with bipartisan support. To mark the occasion, Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) said, “By advancing proposals to encourage the growth of high-performing charter schools and help school leaders access more useful education research, we have taken an important step forward in the fight to improve K–12 education in America. These bipartisan proposals highlight the progress we can make when we work together in good faith, and I hope to build upon today’s success as I continue to advocate for a full reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. I thank my colleagues for their hard work on both proposals, and urge swift passage on the House floor.” Committee leadership hopes the bills will be on the House floor this summer.

As for the annual process of funding education programs, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was on the Hill recently talking to federal appropriators. He answered questions about President Obama’s proposed budget for the Department of Education (ED) for the upcoming year. He warned members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education that sufficient investments in education are crucial to efforts to improve the country’s progress on international comparisons of achievement, increased graduation rates, and persistent equity issues. He asked them to support the request for overall discretionary spending at ED of $68.6 billion. This represents an increase of $1.3 billion, or 1.9 percent, over the FY 2014 level.

At the hearing, the Secretary faced difficult questions from Democrats and Republicans. He was challenged more than once about the president’s proposals to expand early childhood education while proposing no increases for established programs. In response, he insisted repeatedly that increased investments to ensure that all students arrive in kindergarten and first grade ready to be successful yield both success for those students and return on investment. He also noted his strong partnership with Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius, who has since resigned. Pending Senate confirmation of Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Duncan will be working on early childhood education policies and programs with Sylvia Mathews Burwell, director of the Office of Management and Budget, pending Senate confirmation of Burwell to succeed Sebelius at HHS.

The questions to Duncan at the hearing touched on education policy issues outside of the secretary’s purview as well. When questioned from the right about the Common Core State Standards and federal ties to them, he repeatedly reminded the panel that the standards were developed by states and adopted voluntarily, and he asserted that no federal funds are tied to required participation in the effort. He also defended ED’s perceived reliance on competitive grant funds to implement the administration’s education reform agenda by noting that while he believes competitive grants are an important lever in provoking reforms, in the department’s portfolio of programs, 89 percent of funding is distributed through formulas, while only 11 percent support competitive grants.

Following his appearance on Capitol Hill, Secretary Duncan publicly discussed his priorities for the remaining years of the Obama administration. The early childhood education agenda is clearly a focus for him and the White House. Other priorities are the college rating system and “challenging the status quo” in defining success for higher education. Perhaps most interesting for NCTM and its members are his concerns about reforming teacher preparation programs and supporting effective professional development for teachers, both of which have an impact on the implementation of new, high standards and the effective implementation of new assessments as well as the accompanying data that could improve teaching and learning. The “to-do” list for the Secretary is long and touches on all areas of education policy—pre−K to post graduate, as well as all players—students, teachers, schools, principals, administrators, faculty, financial aid administrators, after-school program providers, paraprofessionals, and everyone else who is involved in education at any level. It’s an ambitious agenda that will be hard to fit into the time that he and President Obama have left.


Della B. Cronin is with Washington Partners, LLC.

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