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Bills on Competitiveness Resurface in New Congress

By Sean Cavanagh — January 23, 2007 5 min read
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Just last year, the issue of “competitiveness” seemed to enjoy exalted status on Capitol Hill. Public support came from the White House, members of both parties in Congress, and a cluster of leading business executives, with all agreed that the nation needed to act, and soon.

But despite that talk, the 109th Congress failed to act on any proposals to enhance competitiveness, a catch-all descriptor for the push to promote American economic growth through improved education and research. Now advocates of that agenda are taking up the issue again, even as they acknowledge that their prospects are uncertain in a new Congress with a revamped set of education policy priorities.

Lawmakers have introduced several new bills under the banner of competitiveness this year—some of which were offered last session—and more are expected to follow. A number of the proposals focus on improving the skills of mathematics and science teachers and creating more incentives for students and working professionals to enter and remain in the teaching profession.

The measures, however, resurface as Congress prepares for the labyrinthine task of reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act, and attempts to complete work on renewing the Higher Education Act, among other priorities. It also comes as both the Bush administration and lawmakers are vowing to rein in federal spending this year.

Advocates say their success will likely hinge on finding the proper legislative vehicle to carry the competitiveness agenda. That strategy could involve an effort to include a competitiveness package as part of the No Child Left Behind discussions, or to advance one separately.

“It’s all going to depend on how it will play into the education bills and what’s going on in [congressional] committees,” said Jodi Peterson, the legislative director for the National Science Teachers Association, in Arlington, Va. Ultimately, she said, “any kind of legislation or focus on math and science is a victory for our area.”

A Bush Priority

James W. Kohlmoos, the president of the National Knowledge Industry Association, a Washington group representing organizations such as the federal education research laboratories, which has supported competitiveness proposals, said legislation would have to be crafted to win the backing of key lawmakers.

“If the package is too big and complex, people will throw up their hands and say, ‘This is just patchwork,’ ” said Mr. Kohlmoos, whose organization supports education research and development. “If it’s too small, it will be difficult for it to generate support.”

The competitiveness agenda got off to a strong start last year, when President Bush emphasized the topic in his State of the Union address. Mr. Bush later called for recruiting more math and science teachers and expanding student access to Advanced Placement courses in those subjects, as part of his proposed fiscal 2007 budget.

Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress followed suit with their own proposals. Their bills sought to improve K-12 math and science education through a variety of means, including creating scholarships and incentives for teachers, support for teacher training, and strengthening college teacher education programs.

But neither the House nor Senate approved any of those proposals. Some advocates say there were simply too many competing plans for support to coalesce behind any single proposal; others point to preoccupation with the November elections, which shifted both congressional chambers to Democratic control, as a major factor. Little legislation, on education or any other issue, was approved last year, they note.

Boosting Competitiveness

Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., the chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, and Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, R-Mich., have introduced bills aimed at increasing U.S. competitiveness in producing students with strong mathematics and science skills. More bills are expected.

Bart Gordon

Rep. Gordon’s bills would:
• Expand funding for the federal Noyce scholarship program, which supports math, science, and engineering students who pursue teaching credentials;
• Offer competitive grants to universities to create stronger ties between their math and science departments and their teacher education programs, with a goal of turning out more and better-qualified instructors;
• Establish college scholarships of up to $10,000 per year for students who agree to become math and science teachers, with amounts depending on how long they teach and the needs of the schools; and
• Increase summer institutes, training, and master’s-degree opportunities for current math and science teachers to improve their skills; programs would be overseen by the National Science Foundation.

Vernon J. Ehlers

Rep. Ehlers’ proposals would:
• Promote “pre-mathematics and pre-science readiness” by requiring that local Head Start programs develop students’ basic numerical skills in areas such as counting and grouping items together;
• Create tax credits of $1,000 per year for K-12 math, science, engineering, and technology teachers, and $1,500 for those working in Title I schools;
• Offer businesses that donate new equipment to schools for math, science, engineering, or technology classes tax credits equal to 100 percent of the value of their contributions; and
• Revise the No Child Left Behind Act to include science-test results on districts’ and schools’ “adequate yearly progress” scores; currently that mandate covers only reading and math tests.

SOURCE: Education Week

Still others say the cost of the competitiveness measures—one Senate measure called for $9 billion in spending on research, education, and other areas—was a factor. Congress adjourned last year without approving a fiscal 2007 spending bill for education.

The competitiveness issue “was a major project,” said Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, R-Mich., who has reintroduced a number of competitiveness bills this year. “Everyone [wanted] to incorporate their ideas into it.”

And after the election, he added, “everything just seemed to fall apart.”

Rep. Ehlers’ new proposals would create tax credits for math and science teachers, as well as credits for businesses that donate equipment that can benefit schools in those subjects. Another of his bills would mandate that science-test results be added to districts’ and schools’ “adequate yearly progress” calculations under the No Child Left Behind law; only reading and math results are required now.

The Bush administration supports that change. So do many science teachers: An NSTA poll taken last year found that 65 percent of responding science teachers favored adding science to the AYP mix.

Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., the chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, has also reintroduced a proposal from last year, the “10,000 Teachers, 10 Million Minds, Science and Math Scholarship Act.” That measure would expand existing scholarship opportunities under the National Science Foundation for aspiring math and science teachers, and would expand ongoing professional development for educators, among other steps.

Fiscal Uncertainty

Yet uncertainty also lingers over the competitiveness agenda’s status in upcoming budgets. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is leading a review of the effectiveness of more than 200 math and science programs that operate in various federal agencies, aimed partly at identifying duplicative programs. In addition, the White House and leaders of the new Democratic congressional majorities have vowed to restrain federal spending. While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has mentioned competitiveness as a priority, the House has also approved “pay as you go” rules, which require that spending increases be offset by spending cuts or tax hikes.

Budget concerns “are going to be challenging everything,” said Glenn S. Ruskin, the director of legislative and government affairs for the American Chemical Society, a Washington organization that has sought to rally support for the competitiveness bills.

Mr. Ruskin, however, believed the competitiveness agenda could benefit from the debate over reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act and other discussions, as math and science education receives broad scrutiny. He pointed to a new bill introduced by Rep. Ehlers and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., to create voluntary national standards in math and science. The 56,000-member NSTA and the chemical society back that proposal. (“Standards Get Boost on the Hill,” Jan. 17, 2007.)

“There’s so much support for so many things called ‘competitiveness’—that’s powerful,” said Mr. Kohlmoos, who believed there was a “fifty-fifty” chance that Congress would pass significant legislation in that area this year. “That’s what gives me hope.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2007 edition of Education Week as Bills on Competitiveness Resurface in New Congress

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