Published Online: June 20, 2007

Senate Panel OKs Higher Education Bills Aimed at Boosting Teacher Preparation, College Access

The Senate education committee today approved sweeping bills aimed at encouraging colleges to partner with struggling school districts to provide extensive classroom experience for prospective teachers, and boosting college access for disadvantaged students.

The teacher-training provision, part of a broad, long-awaited measure reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, would combine the three current grant programs that help states and universities prepare and recruit K-12 teachers into a single initiative that would enable colleges to collaborate with high-need districts.

Under the legislation, which the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee approved on a bipartisan vote of 20-0, colleges and districts would receive grants to enable master’s degree students to spend one year working alongside effective mentor teachers in high-need schools while the students took their graduate-level education courses.

In exchange for agreeing to teach in a district for at least three years, students would receive a stipend to help cover their living expenses. To qualify for the grants, districts would have to have a significant percentage of students living in poverty and considerable teacher turnover, among other characteristics.

The grants could also be used to bolster field experiences for college students seeking an undergraduate degree in teaching and to establish induction programs to provide extra assistance and training for first- and second-year teachers. Induction programs receiving the grants would have to offer beginning teachers ongoing support from a mentor and time to collaborate with other teachers.

“There’s a lot of potential here, particularly for school reform,” said Jane E. West, the vice president of government relations for the Washington-based American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. “You’re going to attract teachers who are already committed to teaching in low-income schools. … What a great way to turn around a school that’s in need of improvement.”

But the “challenge is going to be funding,” Ms. West added. The measure doesn’t authorize or recommend a specific amount of money for the teacher-training grants, and the type of programs it encourages schools to develop can be expensive to operate, she said.

To pour more resources into university-district partnerships, the legislation would eliminate two other federal programs aimed at helping prepare teachers. One offers grants to states to improve their teacher education programs, while the other is aimed at teacher-recruitment efforts.

Senators on the committee wanted to focus federal resources on helping colleges improve teacher training and were drawn to teacher “residencies,” which help prospective teachers develop their skills in a classroom setting, similar to medical residencies, said a Democratic Senate aide.

The higher education act was last reauthorized in 1998. It was scheduled for renewal in 2003, but Congress has completed a comprehensive reauthorization bill, instead of opting for numerous extensions.

Increased Access

The Senate education panel also approved a second bill that would trim subsidies to government-backed student lenders. The bill is part of a larger measure aimed at reducing the federal deficit by making changes to mandatory spending programs. The bulk of the savings generated by the bill—about $17 billion—would be used for student aid, much of it to bolster access for poor students. Another $1 billion would be used for deficit reduction.

Under the measure, Pell Grants, the main federal college-aid program for needy students, would increase to a maximum of $5,100 next year, rising to $5,400 by 2011. Under current law, the maximum Pell Grant during the 2007-08 academic year will be $4,310.

“The buying power of the Pell Grant has deteriorated,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the education committee, said during the June 20 hearing. “Student indebtedness has exploded.”

The student-lending bill was approved on a largely bipartisan vote, 17-3. Three Republicans, including Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., voted against the measure. Sen. Gregg argued that while he supported the measure’s goals of increasing access to college for low-income students, the bill would “dramatically increase the growth of government.”

He suggested the student-lending provisions be incorporated into the Higher Education Act, not the broader deficit-cutting measure, so that senators could consider the changes on their own merits.

Student borrowers who go on to careers in public service, such as teaching, would get extra repayment benefits. For instance, beginning teachers in Massachusetts earning a salary of about $35,000 and carrying the average student debt of about $18,000 would see their monthly payments drop from $209 to about $148. The students would no longer have to continue making payments after 10 years.

The legislation would also cap a borrower’s loan repayments at 15 percent of their discretionary income, and would forgive loan balances after 25 years. The measure would aim to protect working students by increasing the amount of their income that could be sheltered when determining their eligibility for federal loans and grants.

The measure also puts new oversight on relationships between colleges and student lenders, after an investigation this spring by New York state Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo uncovered such practices as lenders allegedly offering financial-aid administrators expensive gifts in exchange for a spot on the school’s list of preferred lenders.

Colleges would have to explain how the loans offered by recommended lenders benefit students and their parents. They would also have to disclose any relationships between the lender and the college, or payments made by lenders to college staff members. Lenders would have to provide student borrowers with clear information about the loans they offer, including interest rates and repayment plans.

The measure would also call for the U.S. Department of Education, working with the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, to develop a price index based on annual changes in tuition and fees at different types of colleges, such as two-year public colleges and four-year private colleges. Colleges that raised their tuition beyond the price index would be placed on a watch list.

The secretary of education would make that list public, along with information on state appropriations for higher education.

Cynthia A. Littlefield, the director of federal relations for the Washington-based Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, said her organization supports the approach because “it is very consumer- oriented. We have always said [to lawmakers], ‘Don’t put limits on tuition pricing; let the consumer decide if a price is too high or not.’ ”

A similar budget-trimming measure approved by the House Education and Labor Committee on June 13 would help increase the maximum Pell Grant to $5,200 by 2011. That legislation would also provide up to $16,000 in grants annually for undergraduate students who committed to teaching for four years in shortage areas, such as special education, in high-poverty schools.

The Senate panel also approved an amendment to the student-lending measure, introduced by Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., that would establish a competitive grant program to help school districts improve their high school graduation rates. The program would provide matching grants to districts that partnered with a college and nonprofit organization.

The money could be used to improve curricula, offer accelerated coursework to help 9th graders catch up, identify students at risk of dropping out, and provide college counseling services. Districts with a graduation rate below 70 percent, either for at least two subgroups or for the student population as a whole, would be eligible. The grants would be authorized at $25 million a year in fiscal 2008 and 2009.

Vol. 26

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