Congress Gets an Incomplete on 3 Major Education Bills

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With the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act out of the way, Congress in its next term is expected to finally get around to renewing three other major education measures: the Higher Education Act, the Head Start preschool program, and the main federal law on vocational education.

All three were scheduled for reauthorization in the just-ended two-year term of Congress, but lawmakers did not finish them.

In January, the new 109th Congress will start from scratch on crafting a revision of the Higher Education Act, which authorizes $70 billion in federal student-aid programs, among other provisions.

The higher education reauthorization had made significant headway in the House in this session. Alexa Marrero, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said the panel split up the reauthorization into seven separate bills, of which four passed on the House floor during the 108th Congress. Lawmakers will have to start from scratch in the next Congress.

“The way the House approached the reauthorization was to move the bills separately to give action to a variety of issues involved,’’ Ms. Marrero said. The four bills that passed would have created stricter accountability requirements for teacher education programs, increased student-loan forgiveness for some teachers, revamped foreign-language programs, and renewed graduate education programs.

One proposal that didn’t get far but nonetheless provoked debate would have stripped federal financial aid from institutions that continued to increase tuition by more than twice the rate of inflation. That measure was sponsored by Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee failed to even come up with its version of the HEA during the two-year congressional term. Becky Timmons, the director of government relations at the American Council on Education, said that the Senate had too many other issues on its plate.

Ms. Timmons said the House was also not under any particular pressure to bring remaining aspects of the Higher Education Act to the floor this year. And intense partisanship in the congressional term did not help matters.

“The past history has been that this bill has been remarkably bipartisan, … but this time around there were very few staff meetings that involved representatives from both parties,” Ms. Timmons said.

One observer predicted that even next year could be too early for Congress to reach agreement on reauthorizing the law. Jamie P. Merisotis, the president of the Washington-based Institute for Higher Education Policy, said it could be 2006 before Congress passes an HEA reauthorization.

“It will be very difficult to do it in the first year, because there will be so many issues in the jurisdiction of the committees that it will be difficult for them to get to it,’’ he said. The bill could have a better chance in the second year of the 109th Congress.

Mr. Merisotis also noted that this year’s election campaigns did not make higher education a priority, and that lack of attention also means that it won’t be a priority next year.

But he cautioned against Congress’ failure to act on a renewal of the HEA, which “sends a message that the programs aren’t a priority.’’ On the other hand, he said, most of the debate around the Higher Education Act has seemed to be about accountability rather than student access to college.

“If the reauthorization would result in changes that would negatively impact student access, it would be better not to reauthorize it,’’ he said.

There was more bipartisan cooperation on the bills to renew the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, which also, however, failed to make the final cut at this session.

The Perkins Act authorizes funding for career and technical education, and seeks to improve such programs. It is considered one of the largest federal investments in high schools.

Updated versions of the law passed the House and Senate education committees this year, but they never made it to the floor of either chamber. “It was really just a time issue; …they ran out of time,” said Alisha Hyslop, the assistant director of public policy at the Association for Career and Technical Education, an Alexandria, Va.-based group that works to advance career education.

Head Start

Meanwhile, the reauthorization of Head Start, the main federal early-education program for poor children, was approved by the full House and by the Senate education committee, but failed to reach the Senate floor.

The program provides comprehensive health, family-support, and education services to children from birth to 5 years of age.

In the House, where the Head Start bill passed by a single vote in July 2003, Democrats opposed a provision in the reauthorization that would have allowed eight states to take Head Start funding as a block grant. Democrats also expressed concern that states operating with those block grants would be allowed to set their own standards and evaluate their progress, avoiding federal monitoring reviews that are currently undertaken on each Head Start program every three years.

In the Senate, some members had other ideas for the program. “The approach that the Senate took was considerably different than that of the House,” said Maureen Thompson, a legislative consultant for the National Head Start Association. The Senate committee’s version of the bill did not incorporate the eight-state block grant, and it included an academic-testing mandate that was not in the House bill.

Work on the reauthorization of the Head Start law will begin from scratch next year. Ms. Thompson said she hoped any new legislation would strengthen existing programs and make the program available to more vulnerable children.

Vol. 24, Issue 14, Pages 32-33

Published in Print: December 1, 2004, as Congress Gets an Incomplete on 3 Major Education Bills
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