Capitol Report: August 2017

  • By Della B. Cronin

    Before the House and Senate left Washington, DC, for the August recess, the House took action on the FY 2018 spending bills that will govern spending at several federal research agencies and the Department of Education, keeping the education and STEM education advocacy communities busy in July. 

    As the House Labor, Health and Human Services and Education (LHHS-ED) Appropriations Subcommittee unveiled its spending proposal in mid-July, NCTM and groups representing classroom teachers, principals, superintendents and other educators were sorely disappointed to see that the bill proposes zero funding for Title II, Part A of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  The program, also known as Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants, currently sends states about $2 billion for them to invest in professional development for teachers and principals, class size reduction, teacher salaries, classroom supports and other activities.  The House proposal would not give the program any funds for the fiscal year that starts October 1, 2017. The plan prompted a quick response from NCTM and others in the community, who criticized the plan as short-sighted and “anti-educator”.  Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, said that if the bill were to be enacted, “[P]arents can expect larger class sizes and students can expect to see fewer opportunities to connect one-on-one with qualified, caring teachers.”

    Advocates hoped that even though the LHHS-ED Subcommittee approved the bill (albeit along strictly partisan lines), the full Appropriations Committee might modify the spending plan to include this crucial funding.  In fact, 115 Democrats wrote to the Committee leadership to “express strong opposition” to eliminating funding for the program and argued that “Congress must follow through on our promise by fully funding ESSA programs, including Title II-A.”  At the day-long full Committee markup of the bill, Representative David Price (D-NC) offered an amendment to restore funding for the program and other educator-focused programs.  The amendment was the subject of lively debate, with Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and others speaking passionately about the need to support teachers; ultimately, the amendment failed as Republicans opposed the proposal unanimously.  Democrats and educators hope the Senate will save the program, ostensibly with help from a would-be budget deal that would increase the total amount of available funds, later in the year.  NCTM and others groups will be working with allies on the Hill and in the advocacy community to do the same in September.

    While the Title II elimination is the headline of the spending bill’s plans for Department of Education programs, it’s worth noting that the new Title IV, Part A program would receive a $100 million increase in the House plan, bringing that program’s funding to $500 million in the next fiscal year.  That amount is a fraction of the $1.65 billion the program has been authorized to receive in ESSA.  NCTM and the STEM education community have been fighting for adequate funds for the program, since the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant program is meant to provide districts flexible funds to be used for STEM education and other uses.  It is hoped that Senate action—or a would-be budget deal—would see higher levels of investment for this program as well.

    In July, the House also debated the FY 2018 Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) spending bill last month.  Compared to the President’s budget request, the bill provided higher spending levels for several programs, particularly related to science priorities. CJS Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Culberson (R-TX) made clear his support for science and science research throughout the markup, opposing the administration’s proposed cuts. He was especially supportive of NASA and space exploration research. 

    Total funding in the CJS appropriations is $53.935 billion for FY18, which is $2.62 billion below the FY17 level. NASA funding is $19.872 billion, which is an increase of $218.5 million over last year. The report also includes language in several areas to encourage agencies to work within their charge to broaden K-12 and university STEM participation. For example, there is language for the National Science Foundation (NSF) regarding to support projects that develop “an American STEM workforce that is globally competitive through improved pre-kindergarten through grade 12 STEM education and teacher development, and improved undergraduate STEM education and instruction; improving public scientific literacy and engagement with science and technology in the United States; or expanding participation of women and individuals from underrepresented groups in STEM.”

    While the spending debate has been consuming advocates, the House Education and the Workforce Committee held a hearing in July to ask national, state and district leaders and others about the implementation of ESSA.  Committee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC) said that she and her colleagues are taking on their oversight responsibilities as the law is implemented and she had questions for panelists about the Department’s review process.  Other than concerns about ensuring that underserved and vulnerable populations are served adequately, the panel said ESSA represents an improvement over the previous version of the law, but oversight is crucial.  As Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s team continues to provide feedback to states on their ESSA implementation plans, Chairwoman Foxx and her Senate counterpart (and former Secretary of Education), Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), have signaled that they will be watching out for overreach and flawed feedback.  

    When Congress returns in September they will be under the gun to approve federal spending bills for FY 2018 and address the country’s debt limit.  So far, the Congress hasn’t been able to deliver on the big-ticket items they and President Trump had hoped for at the beginning of the year.  They will have some opportunity to make progress on health care, tax reform, infrastructure and immigration before year’s end, but election season is near.  And that hardly ever helps controversial and complicated matters make progress on the Hill.