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Capitol Report: June 3, 2014

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

President Barack Obama began a tradition of hosting White House Science Fairs in 2009 when he launched his Educate to Innovate campaign to inspire more girls and boys to excel in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects. The president has said more than once that achievements in STEM subjects deserve the same recognition accorded to achievements in sports: “If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House. Well, if you’re a young person and you produce the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too.” The 2014 event featured students from a broad range of STEM competitions and focused specifically on girls and women who are excelling in STEM and inspiring the next generation with their work.

This year, President Obama announced a number of commitments to improving STEM education. He declared that the Department of Education will use $35 million of the Teacher Quality Partnership (TQP) program to train STEM teachers and announced that STEM teaching will be expanded within this summer’s AmeriCorps programs and seven cities across the country will have new STEM diversity mentoring projects, led by US2020 and Citizen Schools. The same day as the Science Fair and the announcement, Roberto Rodriguez, special assistant to the president for education policy, also stressed the administration’s enthusiasm for the proposed STEM Master Teacher Corps and Race to the Top–Equity and Opportunity initiatives, which were among program sproposed by the White House earlier this year. The administration is paying a lot of attention to STEM education, but it’s unclear which of the ideas and proposals will mean more money for states and districts. Using $35 million of the TQP funds is something that the administration can do without approval from Capitol Hill, but some of its other ideas will need congressional cooperation—a commodity in short supply these days.

The White House Science Fair was held in the midst of congressional consideration of two pieces of policy that will affect education and research. The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee opened debate on its proposal to reauthorize the America COMPETES statute, and the proceedings were bitter and partisan. Republicans on the committee would like to curtail research investments and have more say in what the National Science Foundation supports and how it comes to those decisions. Democrats assert that the government isn’t supporting enough basic and applied research and that decisions about which science disciplines to fund should be made at the agency level. The two-day debate had a weekend in the middle of it, but that didn’t seem to cool the rhetoric.

In addition, the House of Representatives is poised to consider the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) appropriations bill for FY 2015. This bill funds the National Science Foundation, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and other research and STEM education interests. The bill will be debated under a so-called “open rule,” which means that any member of the House can propose a change to the measure. As a result, the debate could be very long and very partisan, and Republican leadership is likely to force members to be on the floor at all hours if they want to present their proposals for votes.

A quick glance at for debate of other education policies indicates that the Workforce Investment Act might soon be the subject of floor action in the House and the Senate. A group of bipartisan, bicameral lawmakers has reached a deal on how to improve the country’s workforce development system. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which will now be considered by both the House and Senate, modernizes and improves existing federal workforce development programs, helps workers attain skills for 21st-century jobs, and fosters the modern workforce that evolving American businesses rely on to compete, according to its supporters. Although this is just one of many pieces of education legislation that have been stuck in the legislative process, it is the one that is arguably the least connected to K–12 classrooms. The education community is encouraged by the agreement across the aisle and between the chambers but is hoping that this concord extends to more education policies that have languished for many years. Of course, the days left on the congressional calendar are slipping away, even if it is just the beginning of summer.

Della B. Cronin is with Washington Partners, LLC.


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