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Legislative Update: April 17, 2014

Congress left town last Friday for a two-week recess. In the days leading up to the break, activity on Capitol Hill kept education advocates busy. The House passed a FY 2015 budget resolution that can charitably be described as “troubling” for supporters of domestic programs. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan answered questions from a House spending subcommittee. And the House Education and the Workforce Committee marked up two education bills that had bipartisan support.

Secretary Duncan appeared before the House Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (LHHS) Subcommittee on Appropriations to answer questions about President Obama’s proposed budget for the Department of Education (ED) for the upcoming year. After thanking members for their hard work on the FY 2014 budget, the secretary quickly warned that sufficient education investments are crucial to efforts to improve the country’s progress on international comparisons of achievement, increased graduation rates, and persistent equity issues, and his testimony emphasized that he and the president strongly believe that increased access to early childhood education should be pursued aggressively. Looking to FY 2015, the overall discretionary request for the Department of Education (ED) is $68.6 billion, an increase of $1.3 billion, or 1.9 percent, over the FY 2014 level.

After giving an overview of the budget plan, he faced questions from Democrats and Republicans—with difficult questions from both sides of the aisle. He was challenged more than once about proposals to expand early childhood education while proposing no increases for established programs, but he insisted repeatedly that increased investments in early childhood education yield the highest return on investment. 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. He noted that ED has worked with a number of states that are not wholly implementing the standards, underscoring the point that no federal funds are tied to 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 in the agency’s portfolio of programs, 89 percent of funding is distributed through formulas, while only 11 percent support competitive grants.

At the same time that Secretary Duncan was talking about spending, House Education and the Workforce Committee chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) and ranking member George Miller (D-Calif.) were presiding over the least contentious committee proceeding of the 113th Congress. The committee quickly debated and approved two bills. Both the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act (H.R. 10) and the Strengthening Education through Research Act (H.R. 4366) passed the committee with bipartisan support. The former measure would rewrite the policies that govern federal investments in charter schools. The latter would reauthorize the Education Sciences and Reform Act (ESRA) and update federal efforts to give educators research that can inform and improve teaching and learning strategies.

Just before the House left town, the members approved the budget resolution proposed by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). The measure was approved on a partisan vote by the Budget Committee after a pointed and partisan debate last week. It proposed many policy changes that will never be enacted and would cut federal spending by $5 trillion while significantly revamping social welfare programs. The nonbinding resolution, which cleared the House by a vote of 219-205, is essentially a political document and has no chance of being passed by the Senate. This spending plan is expected to be Ryan’s last, since he will not be leading the Budget Committee after this year. This final budget is considered an outline of Republican priorities, including the repeal of Obamacare—speaking of which, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius formally resigned Friday morning at a White House ceremony. The rollout of was no doubt a factor in Sebelius’s decision. Her successor will be Office of Management and Budget director Sylvia Mathews Burwell, if the Senate confirms her nomination by the president.

Youth CareerConnect Grants 

President Obama announced that 24 grantees in 18 states and Puerto Rico will split a total of $107 million in Youth CareerConnect Grants. The administration’s Youth CareerConnect program is designed to prepare high school students for high-tech careers through a competitive grant process that partners secondary schools with higher education institutions as a way of preparing students for the job market and attracting and expanding local business. The president’s announcement of the 24 grantees was met by skepticism from those who believe that many of the grants targeted areas that have already supported strategies for improving career and technical education instead of truly fostering new innovative partnerships. The president asserted that the Youth CareerConnect program will help American students “out-work and out-innovate and out-hustle” students from around the world.

Early Financial Education Increases Students’ Financial Stability  

EverFi and Higher One hosted an event on financial literacy to release their second-year results in a report, Money Matters on Campus. The report surveyed 65,000 first-year college students across the nation to determine the aspects of student life that most accurately predict positive or negative financial outcomes. It found that students who had received early financial literacy education were more likely to act responsibly, more likely to be cautious in their spending, more aware of the consequences and reality of debt, less fixated on material possessions, and more likely to seek and utilize the financial tools at their disposal.

Developer’s Toolkit Creates Roadmap for Technology Innovators  

Politico hosted an event, "Education Technology Intersection," to discuss the connection of education and technology and explore how innovation can better serve students across the nation. Kumar Garg, senior advisor to the deputy director at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, spoke of the administration’s commitment to promote programs that implement high-quality technical and human infrastructure in schools. Garg additionally highlighted the potential of technology in personalizing education, explaining that reliance on a one-size-fits-all approach is no longer effective. One panelist explained that ED is working on a developer’s toolkit to identify specific classroom needs for technology innovators to use in generating useful technology that truly serves the needs of the students. Another panelist noted that a major difficulty for schools and districts is the “curation” of products and vendors; districts often need assistance in bundling tools and services from the number of available choices. When asked what the federal government could do to encourage STEM careers through technology, participants emphasized the partnerships between industries, schools, and policy leaders, as well as the infusion of resources for teachers.

Community Eligibility Benefits Nearly One Million Students 

The National Association of State Boards of Education hosted an event, "Community Eligibility: What Policymakers Need to Know about Changes Coming to School Meal" to discuss the implementation of the Community Eligibility Provision for free and reduced-price meals. Madeleine Levin, senior policy analyst at the Food Research and Action Center, explained that “community eligibility” allows school districts with at least one school that has 40 percent or more of its students certified for free meals, to provide free breakfast and lunch to all its students, regardless of individual eligibility. Levin noted that the Community Eligibility Provision “has benefitted nearly 1 million students,” and stated that she has received positive feedback from staff and communities since it was phased in beginning in the 2011–12 school year. Keri Kennedy, representing the Office of Child Nutrition at the West Virginia Department of Education, discussed the success of implementing the Community Eligibility Provision in her state by making sure that all West Virginia stakeholders were proactive and prepared before they implemented the program in schools.

Senate Holds Hearing on Pre-K Bill 

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held a hearing to examine the Strong Start for America’s Children Act (S. 1697). Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) presided over the hearing, which focused on the federal government’s role in investing in early childhood education. Harkin voiced his strong support for this legislation, while ranking member Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) announced to the committee that he is working on his own early childhood bill, which would grant states flexibility in using the existing funding streams that address early childhood issues. Three of the four witnesses voiced their support for S. 1697 and said investment in early childhood education is the best way to ensure prosperity and success for future generations. Russ Whitehurst, of the Brookings Institution, questioned the efficacy of prekindergarten programs and suggested that research about outcomes is inconclusive, an assertion that was refuted by his fellow witnesses. Members engaged in a heated discussion about current spending on early education. Senator Harkin closed the hearing with a pledge to mark up S. 1697 next month.

School Discipline 

The National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and numerous education partners hosted the webinar "School Discipline Guidance and Title IX."  The discussion began with an in-depth overview of ED’s processes of disseminating nondiscriminatory guidelines, investigating problems that arise, and enforcing federal nondiscrimination laws, such as Title IX. The discussion focused primarily on ED and the Department of Justice’s “Dear Colleague Letter,” released earlier this year, on the nondiscriminatory administration of student discipline and how that connects with Title VI and Title IX. Renee Bradley, deputy director of research to practice in ED’s Office of Special Education Programs, spoke about the increase in the number of states that are implementing positive and behavior intervention strategies (PBIS) to improve outcomes for all students. She noted that PBIS has been implemented in more than 20,000 schools throughout 11 states through outcome-based measures related to support systems, data-driven models, and best practices. William Howe, state Title IX coordinator and program manager at the Connecticut Department of Education, explained the steps in Connecticut’s four-step model:

  1. Assuming responsibility for oversight in all public schools
  2. Encouraging Title IX coordinators in every school building
  3. Training all Title IX coordinators in their Title IX responsibilities and how to conduct investigations
  4. Training the staff in all civil rights laws

Barriers to Success for Minority Children 

The Annie E. Casey Foundation hosted an event to introduce the report Race for Results, which examines data concerning the nation’s children, organized by race and region, and highlights widespread and dramatic inequity. Soledad O’Brien, journalist and chairman of Starfish Media Group, led the panel discussion and presented the success story of Union City Elementary School in Union City, New Jersey. With a student population that is nearly 90 percent Hispanic, this school jumped from one of the worst-performing schools in the state of New Jersey to a top-tier ranking, thanks to increased student and teacher support, as well as quality leadership. Sherry Salway Black, director of the partnership for Tribal Governance at the National Congress of American Indians, praised the report for its inclusive look at the barriers to success faced by American Indian children. When asked about the targeted efforts that can be made to build a pathway to opportunity for all children, panelist Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called the report a “deep and nuanced view of America’s children,” and cited early childhood education, as well as K–12 equity as top priorities. Black cited the importance of teamwork among federal and tribal governments, and Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, suggested holistic policy and involved parents as keys to eliminating widespread barriers to success.

Contemporary Students 

The House Education and the Workforce Committee held a hearing, "Keeping College within Reach: Meeting the Needs of Contemporary Students."  Committee chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) chaired the hearing, which focused on the various needs of contemporary students in nontraditional educational situations, such as transfer students, adult learners, and students who are veterans. In convening the hearing—the last on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act—Kline acknowledged that the days of traditional students—those who spend four years at a college or university immediately following high school—are over. Kline asserted that today’s students seek higher education while simultaneously balancing families and stable careers, with the desire to earn degrees quickly and efficiently. Ranking member George Miller (D-Calif.) focused his comments on the inefficiencies—of wasted time and money—that transfer students face while attempting to transfer to a new university. along with the value of exploring “co-requisites” rather than “prerequisites.” David Moldoff, CEO and founder of AcademyOne, and Joann Boughman, senior vice chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University System of Maryland, mentioned the need for a reformed college credit transfer system that will not increase the cost of postsecondary education. Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, echoed similar remarks as the ranking member by noting the low success rate of remedial classes and the need to introduce co-requisites. George Pruitt, president of Thomas Edison State College, and Kevin Gilligan, chairman and CEO of Cappella Education Company, both noted the hardships of complying with ED in a new era of contemporary students. Gilligan asserted that Cappella University bases its education model on student knowledge demonstrated through assessments and not on seat time, while Pruitt stated that his institution “must often sacrifice quality for compliance.” The members’ questions focused on federal data collections for higher education, flexible class time structures, and how to increase college retention for contemporary students. A common theme emerged from the witnesses’ answers emphasizing that although  reforming postsecondary education has no one-size-fits-all solution, program diversity and more options for students that are parallel to each other is a start.




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