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Capitol Report: August 2014

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

In recent weeks, Congress has been busy preparing for the August recess. That means figuring out what policies might be the subject of productive debate or determining what the House and Senate must do before heading home and hitting the campaign trail. In the “must do” category is spending. The bill that governs spending for the Department of Education—the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education bill—hasn’t moved in the House, in part because Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), chairman of the subcommittee that will be drafting that bill, is facing a primary election this summer. He would like to avoid votes on spending that might give his conservative challenger campaign fodder. Movement of appropriation bills in the Senate remains paralyzed either at the committee level or on the Senate floor because of threats of amendments considered “toxic” by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who is trying to keep his party in control of that chamber. The Commerce, Justice, Science spending bill, which allocates funding to federal research agencies, was pulled from the Senate floor by the majority leader when it became evident debate would be lengthy and controversial. When and if the impasse might be resolved is anybody’s guess. Congress is now in recess and will return September 8.

In policy issues other than spending, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who heads the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, recently released a discussion draft of a proposal to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act—the law that governs programs at federal research agencies. NCTM and other STEM education advocates are reviewing the proposal and considering how to respond. One element of note in the draft is a renaming of the Math and Science Partnership program at the National Science Foundation as the “STEM and Computing Partnerships.” The House is also working on reauthorizing the statute. After a partisan markup of a reauthorization proposal from Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, committee members identified narrower issues where there was agreement and subsequently approved four bills with broad bipartisan support, including the STEM Education Act of 2014 (HR 5031). The bill’s supporters assert that the measure strengthens ongoing STEM education efforts at federal science agencies and ensures that computer science is included in these efforts. The Senate’s strategy for reauthorizing the larger law will determine further action on this bill and the others that deal with federal research programs.

There have been some developments on other education policies. Congress approved a bill to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) in an overwhelmingly bipartisan manner. WIA is one of the laws on the long list of education laws that needs updating and is the only education measure that has reached the president’s desk. Congress has made some progress in other areas as well. Last month, the House Education and the Workforce Committee approved three bills that would revise parts of the Higher Education Act. The bills passed with bipartisan support after a collegial and bipartisan drafting process. The three bills were not really controversial, with the thornier issues yet to be addressed in the effort to revise the larger act. The issues left for a later date include the Title IV student aid programs and teacher preparation programs of interest to math teachers and teacher educators. Although it may seem that Congress isn’t doing much, its actions are keeping NCTM and the education advocacy community busy.

Elsewhere, research and education advocates have witnessed some personnel changes of interest. President Obama recently appointed Russell Shilling to the position of executive director for STEM initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education (ED). Shilling has more than 20 years of military experience as a research program manager at the Naval Air Systems Command and an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and the Air Force Academy. He held tenure as executive director for science and technology at the Defense Centers for Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury and served as a Navy aerospace experimental psychologist and captain in the U.S. Navy before his recent appointment. Shilling’s STEM focus is in computerized systems that help service members and their families “build resilience to and recover from psychological trauma.” As executive director for STEM initiatives at ED, he will be heading all STEM-related efforts, and he aims to promote STEM education across all age groups while incorporating non-cognitive strategies to improve STEM careers.

At the National Science Foundation (NSF), Deputy Director Cora Marrett announced that she will be leaving the agency. In discussing her decision with reporters, she said, “As you know, the past year has been very challenging, with the shutdown and the effects of sequestration. And having seen that NSF was moving along and that the prospects looked very good, I thought this would be a good time to go home, as I had planned.” Marrett first came to NSF in 1992 to lead its newly formed social and behavioral sciences directorate, set up to address disciplines that have long been targets for legislators from both parties. After five years, she left NSF for a decade as a university administrator, but she returned to NSF in 2007 to head NSF’s programs in education and broadening participation. At the start of the Obama administration, Marrett was promoted to deputy director, and since then she has served either in that capacity or as acting director. New Director Frances Cordova’s arrival marked the first time that women have held both Senate-confirmed posts at NSF.

For many advocates, the annual slower pace in Washington can’t come soon enough.

Della B. Cronin is with Washington Partners, LLC.


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