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Legislative Update: August 2014

With the House Appropriations Committee completing action on 7 of the 12 annual funding bills, Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) reportedly has prepared a continuing resolution that would fund the federal government at FY 2014 levels. Expressing deep frustration over the Senate’s inability to make any progress at all on the FY 2015 budget, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) hinted that the bill will be voted on as soon as Congress returns from its August recess, in the limited number of legislative days left before the new fiscal year begins on October 1. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is taking the brunt of the blame for refusing to bring up any spending bills for fear that the GOP senators will offer tough amendments that could be used against vulnerable Democratic senators up for reelection this fall. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is not very happy about this strategy, but her hands appear to be tied.

Mikulski presented her colleagues with a bill in response to the president’s $3.7 billion supplemental spending request to address the border crisis involving the influx of immigrant children. The bill is $1 billion less than the president sought and does not include changes in policy that the GOP and some Democrats are demanding regarding the treatment of immigrant children from Central America in contrast with other border countries. The real showdown will come next week when the House takes up its bill, which likewise is far smaller than the president’s request and amends the law regarding the treatment of minors. Parties on neither side sound optimistic about their ability to find common ground, in spite of the tragic plight of nearly 100,000 children caught in limbo at the border and around the country.

Although a continuing resolution would not harm education, spending for which would be at the FY 2014 level with no increases and no cuts, it would be disappointing, since the year began with great fanfare over an agreed-on funding level for FY 2015—$1.014 trillion—that was expected to make the process run more smoothly. No such luck. Furthermore, because Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), chair of the House Labor, Health and Human Services (LHHS), and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, was defeated in his primary bid to run for the Senate, it is unclear whether the bill that his subcommittee drafted will ever see the light of day. Kingston is the third LHHS chair in recent memory to be defeated, a record that does not bode well for his successor. The Senate appropriators did not do much better, but they have recently released the text of the FY 2015 LHHS-Education Appropriations Bill as well as the LHHS Subcommittee report, 44 days after the markup.

Though the budget process has been stymied, other education legislation has moved forward. In the House, five bills that address the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) and were widely supported in the Education and the Workforce Committee—H.R. 3136, H.R. 3393, H.R. 4983, H.R. 4984, and H.R. 5134were adopted with strong bipartisan support by the full House. Action is not anticipated on these bills in the Senate since Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, prefers moving a complete HEA reauthorization proposal over the House’s piecemeal approach. Nevertheless, the bi-partisan nature of this action was a pleasant change. In the Senate, hearings on the reauthorization of HEA continued. On another bipartisan note, members of both parties from the House and the Senate joined President Obama at the White House for the signing of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014. Enactment of this bill was 10 years in the making, but signaled that Congress is not 100 percent dysfunctional, at least when it comes to education policy.

Proposal to Consolidate Funding Streams
House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) announced a proposal, “Expanding Opportunity in America,” which he states will fight poverty at the federal level. The proposal would consolidate up to 11 federal programs, including the Child Care and Development Block Grant, into a single optional funding stream for states, called the “Opportunity Grant.” It would also convert Head Start into a block grant for states and would “convert Title I-A funding into a flexible block grant, on the condition that states spend the money on low-income children. But they would be able to let the funds follow the child,” the report reads. In addition, the proposal would make changes to federal programs for higher education, such as simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and moving funds from the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program into the Pell Grant program. The proposal caps Grad PLUS and Parent PLUS loans and also offers changed loan repayment options, without proposing a specific plan.

Rolling out the Common Core in States
The Center for American Progress (CAP) hosted a panel discussion, “A Roadmap for a Successful Transition to Common Core in States and Districts.” The bipartisan panel consisted of former governors Jim Douglas (R-Vt.) and Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) as well as Carmel Martin, executive vice president for policy at CAP, and Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Both former governors agreed that creation of the Common Core was driven by states on a bipartisan basis to address the needs of American students. All panelists also agreed that the standards are strong but will work only if teacher training and testing are improved. Finn strayed from the group to note that implementation of the standards has been a mixed bag and cannot be called a success at this point, and he argued that good standards do not inherently result in higher achievement of students. He also pointed out that claiming that 45 states initially supported the Common Core is not accurate because the Department of Education incentivized supporting baseline standards by tying them to Race to the Top funding, and he suggested that state support would be much lower without that incentive.

Data and Assessment Literacy
The Data Quality Campaign hosted a webinar, “What’s the Difference Between Data Literacy and Assessment Literacy?” detailing the greater need for periodic assessments than for summative assessments so that teachers have more opportunities to adjust their teaching methods to increase students’ success in comprehending difficult information. The webinar also highlighted the fact that data literacy and assessment literacy are not interchangeable—data literacy includes assessment literacy but goes beyond it to include factors such as a student’s environment, social and emotional learning, and absenteeism. A teacher panelist discussed ways in which teachers at her school had incorporated data literacy into their teaching methods, such as by taking assessments along with students, trying to identify “distracter” items (questions likely to trick students), checking the results to see whether their predictions were correct, and then addressing any issues.

Support for Early Childhood Education
The First Five Years Fund hosted an event, “America Speaks: Grow America Stronger with Early Childhood Education, a National Poll Briefing.” Results of an 800-person poll were discussed. The most important finding was that a proposal that would increase federal funding for high-quality early childhood programs for low-income children had 71 percent support, even if the programs would contribute to the deficit in the short-term with a long-term payoff. Other findings of note included the fact that 85 percent of respondents thought that ensuring that children get a strong start should be a top priority, and 67 percent regarded access to affordable child care as a top priority. The urgency of this issue was also perceived to be very high, with 76 percent of respondents stating that it must be addressed within the next two years. Almost all the results from the 2014 poll were within the margin of error of last year’s poll results, showing that this issue has not lost ground in public opinion.

School to Prison Pipeline
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) hosted an event, “From Education to Incarceration: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline.” Anthony J. Nocella, senior fellow at the Dispute Resolution Institute at Hamline Law School, discussed his new book with the same title. Nocella called for more tolerance in dealing with troubled students. He emphasized the need for reform in three focus areas to improve learning conditions for disadvantaged youth:

1. Environmental justice to address issues such as urban pollution

2. Food justice to provide all youth with affordable healthy food

3. Repeal of dress code laws to address subversive laws targeting youth of color.

Teacher Induction
The Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE) and the New Teacher Center hosted a briefing, “Improving the Effectiveness of Beginning Teachers.” The focus was on new research that shows a “greening” of the teaching force. Although the average teacher in the 1980s had 15 years of experience, by 2012 that number had dropped to an average of five years. Between 40 and 50 percent of new teachers leave within the first five years of teaching. As a solution, a “comprehensive” induction package—face time with administrators, a mentor from the same field, and a few other supports such as a teacher aide or beginners’ seminars—cut the attrition rate by more than half.

House Moves First Three HEA Reauthorization Bills
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 an apparently collegial process of writing them. The three bills were not really controversial, with the thornier issues involved in the effort to revise portions of the larger act, such as the Title IV student aid programs, which were left for later. Staff members report that they will delay any proposals related to the act’s teacher preparation programs until after the August recess at the earliest. The bills that passed, all by voice vote, are the following:

  • Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act (H.R. 4983), which will help students gain access to the facts that they need to make an informed decision about their education 
  • Empowering Students through Enhanced Financial Counseling Act (H.R. 4984), which will promote financial literacy through enhanced counseling for all recipients of federal financial aid 
  • Advancing Competency-Based Education Demonstration Project Act (H.R. 3136), which will experiment with allowing federal student aid to go to education programs that include direct assessment of higher educational progress instead of purely time-based measurements.

Non-Defense Discretionary United Discuss Budget Issues
The team leaders of Non-Defense Discretionary (NDD) United hosted a meeting to discuss two urgent threats to continued federal support for domestic social programs—the convening of a balanced-budget constitutional convention and the failure to pass a FY 2015 budget. Rob Gray from the Center for Budget Policy (CBP) spoke about the growing movement among states to call for a constitutional convention to approve a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Ellen Nussbaum, also from CBP, discussed the second urgent threat: the federal government’s failing to pass an FY 2015 budget. The message for attendees was that it is time to activate state networks against the constitutional convention movement and to resend a letter to Congress stating that any spending cuts in the future need to be balanced between defense and non-defense programs, and to remind Congress of the $4 trillion in cuts that have already been authorized.

Bipartisan Workforce Legislation Moves to the President’s Desk
The House passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) by a bipartisan vote of 415 to 6. The measures reauthorizes the Workforce Investment Actone of many pieces of education legislation long overdue for revising. The Senate approved the same legislation in June by a vote of 95-3. WIOA is split into five titles that focus on four main topics:

  • Workforce development
  • Adult education and literacy
  • National programs
  • Employment for individuals with disabilities

President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law, and the signing is likely to be a high-profile event, given the widespread, bipartisan support for the bill and the fact that the measure could very well be the only education-related legislation to make it to his desk this year.

Inequity in Funding Continues to Vex American Public School System
The Center for American Progress (CAP) hosted an event, “Rethinking School Finance: A Look at Funding Equity and Effectiveness,” to discuss inequities in the funding of public schools and to examine spending priorities. Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) opened the briefing by saying, “Our system is designed so that poor children get the least of everything,” and noting that as long as property tax is linked to school funding, poor children will continue to fail. Prioritizing is also essential, and he pointed to more than 100 school districts in Texas that spend, on average, $500 per student on athletics, with some spending up to more than $1,000. A potential solution was discussed: restoration of the integrity of Title I funding, which was created to provide extra federal support to students who need it the most. 

E-Rate Modernization Proposal Falls Short for Many 
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler circulated his E-rate modernization proposal to update the program that has supported schools’ and libraries’ access to modern communications networks for the last 18 years. Though the modernization proposal aims to “close the Wi-Fi gap, make E-rate dollars go farther, and bring E-rate into the 21st century,” advocates and representatives of beneficiaries have expressed concern that the proposal falls short and does not provide a plan for sustained funding and support. A press release published by the FCC highlights Wheeler’s proposal to “commit at least $1 billion in support to Wi-Fi next year … followed by another $1 billion in 2016.” It also notes the maximum “4 to 1” spending strategy that requires the program to spend $4 for Wi-Fi services for every $1 spent by schools.

New Department of Education STEM Director 
President Obama appointed Russell Shilling to the position of executive director for STEM initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education (ED). Shilling has more than a decade of military experience as a research program manager at the Naval Air Systems Command and has been 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.

Friedman Foundation Annual Survey Released to Mixed Reception 
The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) hosted an event, “Taking the Nation’s Pulse: Results from the Schooling in America Survey,” to release the annual survey from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice and host a panel discussion on its implications. In the new survey, 58 percent of Americans believed that K–12 education was on the wrong track while only 33 percent believed that it was on the right track. There was a tremendous mismatch between the types of school that parents wanted their children to attend and the schools that the children actually attended (87 percent of parents sent their children to public schools, but only 37 percent of parents approved of public schools). The survey also found that after parents were given more context on the Common Core, their support for the Common Core rose by 16 percent.

Teachers Enjoy Work, but Feel Unsupported 
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released its Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) results from its most recent survey, administered in 2013. More than 100,000 teachers and school leaders in “lower secondary levels” (students aged 11–16) in 34 countries took part in the OECD survey, which aims to help countries develop a high-quality teaching profession through a better understanding of who teachers are and how they work. According to the results, most teachers enjoy their jobs, despite feeling unsupported and unrecognized in schools and undervalued by society at large. The survey found that more than nine out of ten teachers are satisfied with their jobs, and nearly eight in ten would choose the teaching profession again. However, fewer than one in three teachers believe that teaching is a valued profession in society.

Challenges for Adult Learners 
The Congressional E-Learning Caucus and Representatives Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) hosted a screening of the documentary “Courageous Learning,” followed by a panel discussion on the challenges facing nontraditional learners. The documentary noted that the U.S. is ranked 16th in the world for the number of college-educated adults and proposed focusing on adult learners as the means to achieve President Obama’s goal for the United States to have the largest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. The documentary argued that colleges must adjust to the increase in nontraditional learners and invest more in online and competency-based learning to make postsecondary degree programs more flexible and accessible for adults.

Non-Cognitive Strategies for Student Success at the Middle Level 
The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) hosted a briefing, “Strengthening Non-Cognitive Skills in the Middle Grades to Improve Academic Achievement and Success.” Craig Wacker of the Raikes Foundation set the stage by highlighting the scientific links between student mindsets and academic outcomes and stressing that mindsets are critical in the middle school years. Three middle school principals being recognized by the National Forum then discussed how they had approached improving student mindsets in their schools.

Student Data 
Subcommittees of the House Education and the Workforce Committee and the Committee on Homeland Security recently held a joint hearing on the collection and use of data from students. The Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, and the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies hosted, “How Data Mining Threatens Student Privacy,” to discuss the ways in which student data are collected and exchanged and what student privacy protections are offered at the state and federal level. The majority of the hearing focused a report coauthored by Joel R. Reidenberg, founding academic director of the Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham University School of Law. The report, Privacy and Cloud Computing in Public Schools, found that more school districts are relying on cloud servicers with barely any oversight or knowledge of how the servicers are using the collected data. All members and witnesses agreed that collecting student data is important for improving education and for individualized learning, especially for the most-at-risk students; however, the witnesses disagreed on the federal government’s role in establishing new laws to protect student data and who is at fault for not protecting student data—parents, third-party vendors, teachers, or school districts.

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