A bill to cut $40 billion out of the federal budget over five years narrowly won final passage in Congress last week, despite controversy over a college-grant program tucked inside the legislation that could give the secretary of education new powers over high school curricula.
The Deficit Reduction Act, which raises interest rates on federal student loans among a host of cuts to programs in many departments, passed the House on a vote of 216-214 on Feb. 1. The Senate passed it in December, and President Bush is expected to sign the measure into law.
But uncertainty remains over a $3.7 billion annual program of what some characterize as enhanced Pell Grants aimed at students from low-income families who have taken a “rigorous” high school curriculum. The bill, according to some observers, appears to give the secretary of education the authority to decide which high school curricula fit that definition. (“Bill Pushes ‘Rigorous’ Curricula,” Feb. 1, 2006.)
However, in a letter to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings last week, the Republican chairmen of both the House and Senate education committees said that adding such authority was not the intent of the legislation.
“Some concern has arisen that this initiative will allow the secretary to become involved in establishing high school curriculum,” says the Feb. 1 letter from Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee until last week. “We want to be very clear that this was neither the intention nor the effect of the language in this bill.”
The letter asserts that the secretary’s only role in the process is to recognize that states, school districts, or other school authorities, including charter schools, private schools, or home schools, have established what they consider to be rigorous coursework.
Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said in a Feb. 2 e-mail that “we continue to believe that curriculum decisions are best left at the state and local levels and will be working with them to implement this proposal.”
A Rigorous Education
The grant program would seek to encourage high schoolers to pursue college-level studies in mathematics, science, and certain foreign languages. It would reward college freshmen and sophomores who had completed a “rigorous” high school program with grants ranging from $750 to $1,300 annually and juniors and seniors who pursue college majors in those subjects with grants of up to $4,000 per year.
The text of the grant legislation describes a “rigorous” high school course of study as one that is “recognized as such by the secretary,” language that has prompted concerns in some circles.
In an interview last month, Holly Kuzmich, the Education Department’s deputy assistant secretary for policy, said Secretary Spellings had no plans to sift through the curricula of thousands of U.S. high schools.
In their letter to the secretary, Reps. Boehner and Enzi stressed their belief that not only does the bill not give the secretary new authority to “establish curriculum, we assert that federal law prohibits this.”
The letter cites the General Education Provisions Act, a federal statute that outlines the mission of the Education Department and prohibits it from becoming directly involved in local curriculum issues, among other things.
In addition, the lawmakers’ letter addresses a concern that the language of the college-aid provision would prohibit charter schools, private schools, and home schools from qualifying their high school curricula as “rigorous.” However, both the Education Department and the two education leaders in Congress say they believe that’s not the case.
“Simply put,” Reps. Boehner and Enzi state, “all students from charter, private, and home schools are eligible, as long as the coursework they study meets the rigorous standards established by the state, local educational agency, or school.”