House OKs Higher Ed. Act Reauthorization

Bill has provisions aimed at improving K-12 schools.

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The House of Representatives approved a measure to reauthorize the Higher Education Act last week that would establish or bolster several programs aimed at improving K-12 education, including the creation of a corps of “adjunct teachers” to lead classes in math, science, and critical foreign languages.

It also would authorize more money for Pell Grants and require colleges to provide more information on tuition increases.

The measure, which passed 221-199 in the Republican-controlled House on March 30, largely along party lines, would renew the law for six years. It would authorize about $4.78 billion for fiscal year 2007 for programs that train teachers, prepare K-12 students for higher education, and help financially needy students afford college.

The bill aims to strengthen mathematics and science education in secondary schools, partly by creating a program allowing professionals in those fields to serve as adjunct teachers. It would also allow federal teacher education money to go toward training more teachers to lead Advanced Placement classes in subjects such as chemistry and calculus.

The Senate is expected to take up its version of the HEA legislation later this year.

Some Issues Settled

The bill to rewrite the HEA, which was last reauthorized in 1998, would also raise the maximum Pell Grant amount and instruct the Department of Education to provide more user-friendly information about colleges to the public.

Under the measure, colleges that increased tuition at more than twice the rate of inflation over a three-year period would have to justify their prices.

HEA Renewal Advances

The House last week approved a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act that would:

• Authorize an Adjunct Teacher Corps, which would allow professionals from outside education to lead classes in math, science, and critical foreign languages, similar to a program proposed by President Bush.
• Establish a Teacher Incentive Fund program, which would give grants to states interested in offering "performance-based pay" for teachers.
• Authorize extra Pell Grant money to students in the State Scholars program, offered in 14 states.
• Bolster foreign-language study by fostering partnerships between schools and colleges.
• Allow money for teacher training to be used to prepare educators to teach Advanced Placement classes.

But House Democrats lambasted the overall reauthorization bill as not doing enough to further the original mission of the Higher Education Act, which was first adopted in 1965 to increase access to college.

Most financial-aid programs were renewed separately under the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, signed by President Bush earlier this year. That legislation cut about $12 billion in mandatory spending on student loans over five years, in part by trimming subsidies to lenders.

The deficit-reduction law also established Academic Competitiveness Grants, which will give larger Pell Grants to college freshmen and sophomores who took a rigorous high school curriculum, as well as to juniors and seniors who major in math or science, or in foreign languages that are deemed critical to national security and economic competitiveness. It also increased loan-forgiveness limits for math, science, and special education teachers who work in needy schools for at least five years. ("Congress OKs Aid Based on ‘Rigorous’ H.S. Curricula," Feb. 8, 2006.)

Although that measure had already passed, its anticipated effect on student borrowers continued to inflame the debate over the Higher Education Act reauthorization.

College is “an opportunity that should never, ever be foreclosed just because someone cannot afford to take advantage of it,” Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said on the House floor.

But the education panel’s chairman, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., said the Democrats were focusing too narrowly on changes to the federal student-aid program that had already passed, while ignoring the higher education bill’s efforts to “advance American competitiveness.”

“If you’ve listened to most of what the other side is talking about, they’re complaining about what we did a couple months ago in the Deficit Reduction Act to bring some controls to the budget,” Rep. McKeon said during the floor debate.

Adjunct Teacher Corps

The Adjunct Teacher Corps proved to be another sticking point among lawmakers. The program, which is similar to a proposal advanced by President Bush in his State of the Union Address, was part of an amendment that passed 293-134. It would authorize grants to recruit and place math, science, and other professionals in secondary school classes. Poor and underperforming schools would be given priority for the assistance.

The amendment drew criticism from both sides of the aisle. Rep. Mike Ferguson, R-N.J., a former teacher, said that it “undercuts the goal of the No Child Left Behind Act of having a highly qualified teacher in every classroom,” since adjuncts would not have to meet that standard. ("‘Adjunct Teachers’ Could Do End Run Around NCLB Act," March 1, 2006.)

But Rep. Holt argued that the program “recognizes that these are not fully fledged teachers,” since grantees would have to demonstrate how they planned to prepare adjunct teachers, including providing preservice training and assigning teachers with the “highly qualified” label under the NCLB law to be on-site mentors.

Under the amendment, money could also be used to pay for partnership programs between colleges and school districts to encourage students to study the same language from kindergarten through college, such as immersion environments.

The amendment would also allow teacher-training funds to be used to prepare educators to lead AP classes and preparatory classes in math, science, and critical foreign languages.

The legislation would also permit graduate students interested in careers training math, science, and special education teachers to receive federally funded scholarships under the existing Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need Program, which is designed to help high-achieving low-income students pursue advanced degrees in key professions.

Jane E. West, the vice president of government relations for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, in Washington, praised the provision. She said it would be a good step in addressing a shortage of educators qualified to train teachers for those subjects.

Teacher Incentive Funds

The bill would also authorize about $100 million in grants to states interested in developing Teacher Incentive Funds to reward educators who raise student achievement, particularly those who teach in high-need schools or subjects.

Kim Anderson, a lobbyist for the 2.8 million-member National Education Association, said the teachers’ union is wary of the provision. The NEA does not want to see federally mandated pay for performance, she said.

“We do support paying bonuses to teachers who agree to go and teach in schools that are in need of improvement, … but starting going down this road—that makes us uneasy,” she said.

Meanwhile, the HEA reauthorization passed by the House calls for raising spending on Pell Grants to $6,000, although Rep. Miller and other Democrats said there is no way to ensure that the increase would be appropriated. The bill would also permit students in the State Scholars program to receive up to $1,000 a year in additional Pell Grant money during their first two years of college. Pell Grants, which are given based on need, currently range from $400 to $4,050.

Districts in 14 states offer the State Scholars program, which fosters partnerships between businesses and schools to encourage students to take challenging high school courses, such as advanced math and foreign languages.

Ross Wiener, the policy director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that seeks to improve education for needy students, praised the program’s goals, but he questioned whether the State Scholars program was the best vehicle for offering enhanced Pell Grants, since it does not exist in many states.

“It would be a big problem to focus financial incentives only on students who are in a few states,” Mr. Wiener said.

Vol. 25, Issue 30, Pages 32, 34

Published in Print: April 5, 2006, as House OKs Higher Ed. Act Reauthorization
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