Law & Courts

Congress OKs Renewal of Higher Education Act

By Alyson Klein & Stephen Sawchuk — July 30, 2008 7 min read

With just days to spare before the August congressional recess, Congress on Thursday approved a final Higher Education Act reauthorization bill that would bolster collaboration between school districts and teacher-preparation programs, encourage colleges to hold down tuition costs, and simplify the main federal student-aid application.

A bipartisan majority in both chambers approved the bill, the House by a 380-49 vote and the Senate by an 83-8 vote. It next heads to the White House for President Bush’s signature.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said the bill’s passage “sends a clear message that improving college opportunities for the nation’s students and families is again a top priority for Congress.”

The HEA, which has been up for renewal since 2003, governs a broad swath of federal student-aid and other higher education programs.

“Why is this legislation so broadly supported? Because we all understand the importance of a well-educated population, and the urgency of this moment,” Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said on the House floor just before the vote. “It’s going to make a major contribution to strengthening the American economy.”

The ranking Republican on the House education committee, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon of California, praised new provisions to publicize skyrocketing college costs and to encourage states to contain them.

“I know this bill isn’t perfect, but it will make a real difference to students and families struggling to pay for college,” he said.

Both lawmakers also praised a continued bipartisan effort on the bill over the past five years, despite a shift in power in 2007, when Democrats took over the majority in both houses of Congress.

“This legislation doesn’t belong to just this committee or this majority,” Rep. Miller said.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who has advocated for stronger postsecondary education accountability through the Commission on the Future of U.S. Higher Education, expressed reservations about the bill.

“More work can—and must—be done to make achievement outcomes more transparent to students and families,” Ms. Spellings said in a statement. “This bill represents another important step, but we still have a long way to go.”

Streamlining Aid Process

The bill seeks to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, cutting the seven-page form down to two pages. And it would require colleges with the steepest percentage increases over a three-year period in their tuition rates among the institutions in their sectors to submit reports to the U.S. secretary of education detailing why costs have increased and explaining how they will hold them down.

Members of a House-Senate conference committee finished reconciling differences between separate versions of the measure on Tuesday night.

In the conference committee, Rep. John F. Tierney, D-Mass., offered an amendment that would require states to fund higher education programs at a level that is at least as high as that state’s average appropriation for postsecondary education over a five-year period.

States that did not comply would risk losing federal Access Challenge grants, which aim to increase the number of students from underrepresented populations who graduate from college. States could get an exemption in times of economic hardship.

Rep. Tierney called the provision a “fairly modest” attempt to help tamp down college tuition costs, which have been rising faster than inflation. The amendment, similar to language that was in the bill originally approved by the House in February, was agreed to by voice vote among House members on the conference committee, and by a vote of 12-9 among the Senate members.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former governor of that state, argued that the amendment amounted to an unnecessary expansion of federal power.

“I don’t think it’s our business to be allocating state tax dollars,” he said in the committee. “If we want to do that, we should be running for governor or running for the state legislature.”

Sen. Alexander offered an amendment that would have suspended the requirements of Rep. Tierney’s amendment unless Congress has fully funded the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which helps states cover the costs of students in special education. Sen. Alexander’s amendment failed on a vote of 11-10.

Bolstering Collaboration

The compromise HEA bill would combine three existing grant programs aimed at teacher education into a single funding stream. The money would bolster partnerships between colleges of education and school districts to offer enhanced field experiences for prospective educators.

It could be used to develop “teacher residency” programs, which would allow students pursuing master’s degrees in education to work alongside mentor teachers at high-poverty K-12 schools while they took their graduate-level courses. The grants could also be used to train K-12 superintendents and other administrators.

Teacher education programs could also use the grants to bolster field experiences for undergraduates and provide support to new teachers during their first years in the classroom, including helping them develop relationships with mentor-educators.

Sharon Robinson, the president of the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, in Washington, praised lawmakers for providing incentives for collaboration between colleges of education and districts.

“What six weeks of student teaching [accomplishes] is not adequate,” Ms. Robinson said. “Engagement with schools of education in the real schools and communities that work with these candidates, that has to be intensified. It takes a lot of work, so sending that kind of signal is the right thing to do.”

The language is similar to a campaign proposal put forth by Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. He has made expanding teacher residencies and bolstering support for new teachers a cornerstone of his education plan.

The HEA measure would also authorize “Teach to Reach” grants, which could be used to support partnerships between teachers’ colleges and high-need districts to help general education teachers work with students in special education placed in their classrooms.

And it would create an Adjunct Teacher Corps, which would allocate competitive grants to districts to help recruit and train mathematics, science, and specialists in foreign languages deemed “critical.”

New Accountability

The bill would also create additional accountability requirements for teacher-preparation programs. The 1998 reauthorization of the HEA required states to rank such programs based on the percentage of teacher candidates in each program passing state licensing exams. Now, states also must compare the average scaled score of each program’s candidates to a statewide average and specify whether teacher candidates who have passed the test have completed their coursework.

The changes would help officials better differentiate among those institutions with high test-passage rates and obtain a better sense of program quality, proponents of the change said.

“It allows us to focus our attention on the real productivity of schools of education and not include in the equation others who decided they wanted to take the licensing exams,” Ms. Robinson said. “It is something we have advocated from the very beginning of this reauthorization process.

The compromise bill would also place a heavier emphasis on better preparation of teachers of specific subjects and populations, including students with disabilities and English-language learners. Teacher-preparation programs would have to set annual, quantifiable goals for increasing the number of teachers trained in state-designated shortage subjects and fields. They would also have to report progress toward achieving those goals, but wouldn’t face penalties for failing to meet them.

TRIO Changes

The bill would permit TRIO applicants whose grant applications were rejected to appeal that decision. And it would scrap a set of guidelines issued by the department in 2006 for Upward Bound programs, one of the TRIO programs that help prepare disadvantaged students for higher education.

TRIO advocates contended that the guidelines would shift the focus of the program from college access to dropout prevention, and take admissions decisions out of the hands of local program administrators. Under the guidelines, 30 percent of a program’s participants must be at risk for academic failure, meaning they must have a 2.5 GPA or lower. And to be eligible for Upward Bound, students must have completed 8th grade but not yet finished 10th.

Under the bill, there would be no GPA requirement for participants and students could enter the program at any grade level.

The administration’s guidelines “attempted to deprive students who are not failing academically from receiving services,” Arnold L. Mitchem, the president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, a Washington-based organization that advocates for TRIO programs.

He said the department’s directive “overlooks the important fact that some excellent Upward Bound candidates may be surviving in school but may be at risk of failing in life.”


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