Capitol Report: July 2017

  • By Della B. Cronin

    With Washington hitting some of its warmest days of the year this month, Congress and the White House are well aware that the month-long August recess is not very far away—leaving little time for many of the big items that were on their wish list for this year. Health care reform legislation has cleared the House, but its chances in the Senate are unclear as of this writing. A tax reform package has yet to emerge. An infrastructure effort has seen little more than lip service. And while it seems almost ridiculous to say, the 2018 Congressional election cycle will start to affect what current Members are willing to debate almost immediately after they return from their August break. That means new, large, and controversial efforts are less likely to see much debate, let alone legislative action.

    In the meantime, there has been some action on education policy. The House, in a rare bipartisan move, has approved the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, bipartisan legislation to strengthen and improve career and technical education (CTE). (The bill was approved via use of the House’s suspension calendar, which means there was no opposition to the measure, but there was not a formal vote tally, either.) K-12 STEM education programs rely on this program and how local districts use the associated funds in developing curricula that convey STEM knowledge and skills. Representatives Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Penn.) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) introduced the bill to reauthorize the law for the first time since 2006. The proposal is largely identical to legislation the House of Representatives passed in September 2016 by an overwhelming vote of 405 to 5. The bill maintains many of the same contours of last year’s proposed legislation, including empowering local leaders, improving alignment with in-demand jobs, increasing transparency and accountability, and ensuring a limited federal role. In a statement, Thompson said the legislation was "a well-engineered, bipartisan reauthorization aimed at permanently closing our nation's skills gap,” while Krishnamoorthi said the training programs funded under the bill "will help hardworking families pursue more fulfilling futures while also supporting our nation's continued leadership in a global economy.” Representative Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chairwoman of the House Education Committee, and Representative Bobby Scott (D-Va.) the Ranking Member, also praised the bill. Although the House passed a Perkins bill last year, the reauthorization push got bogged down in the Senate, where Democrats and Republicans couldn't agree on how much to limit the authority of the Secretary of Education in any new Perkins Act. It’s unclear what issues might slow Senate consideration of the matter this year, as staff on that side of the Capitol have been consumed with health care, cabinet nominations, and, at least for Senator Lamar Alexander’s (R-Tenn.) staff, supporting new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. 

    Speaking of Secretary DeVos, the Department of Education (ED) has been reviewing state plans required by the Every Student Succeeds Act and recently provided some feedback to the 17 states that chose to submit their plans in April. (Most states are choosing to submit their plans in September.) In letters to some of those states, leadership at ED noted that decisions to include science assessments in accountability rubrics exceeded the requirements of the new law. Some in the STEM education community found that feedback troubling and argue that such sentiments might dissuade—intentionally or not—the inclusion of science in state-developed accountability plans. The STEM community has long argued that absence of the subject has contributed to less science being taught as schools focused on reading and math achievement during the No Child Left Behind era. The STEM Education Coalition recently wrote to the Department to express its concerns on this point. 

    At the White House. the President has been slow to staff the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), even though countless organizations wrote urging him to do so as part of their transition letters sent at the beginning of the year. Several Democratic members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee joined in that call in sending a letter that pointed to what they consider to be the President’s reliance on “dubious” news sources and noting that the establishment of a strong OSTP could help him better vet his sources. The letter says, in part, “If you appoint a qualified OSTP Director, you will have a reliable source of policy advice for matters related to science and technology, which forms the bedrock of our national security and economic power.” The research community followed suit later in the month by signing a letter arguing for a strong OSTP that won dozens of organizational endorsements, saying, in part, “…OSTP has been directly involved in the response to the Zika outbreak; promoting cybersecurity; addressing U.S. infrastructure needs with geospatial data; combatting antibiotic resistance; developing a robust U.S. space policy; and supporting advanced manufacturing. Given the many challenges facing our nation, your Administration would greatly benefit from a cadre of experts advising on these topics and others.” There has been no response to either missive yet. 

    It’s hot already in Washington, and it will get hotter before summer’s end.