Law & Courts

Education Laws Overdue for Renewal Languish in Congress

By Alyson Klein — January 14, 2014 8 min read
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As the 113th Congress returns for its second year, nearly every major education law remains overdue for reauthorization, leaving issues from early childhood to workforce development caught in a vortex of partisan rancor.

Education advocates are fearful that Congress—which triggered the government shutdown late last year and has a historically low approval rating—won’t be able to get any of the pending bills across the finish line by December, when this Congress comes to a close. And observers across the political spectrum are highly skeptical that much work will get done by the time President Barack Obama leaves office, three years from now, on laws badly in need of updating.

The slow pace of legislative progress has put the Obama administration largely in the driver’s seat on education policy, through such initiatives as a complex series of waivers easing parts of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Those moves have given the U.S. Department of Education more say than ever on what happens in schools across the country. But the administrative solutions are far from permanent, making the future uncertain for educators, from teachers to state schools chiefs.

“We’ve kind of gotten used to Congress not taking any action,” said Terry Holliday, who serves as Kentucky’s commissioner of education and is the president of the Council of Chief State School Officers. Temporary fixes such as the Obama administration’s NCLB waivers “help, but they’re not a long-term solution. We absolutely need Congress to establish a vision and expectations for education.”

Chief among the lingering legislation is the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose current version is the No Child Left Behind law. The renewal has been pending since 2007.

Lawmakers also must rewrite measures governing federal policy and programs for education research, special education, career and technical education, and adult learners, as well as the politically ticklish Higher Education Act. And the main law authorizing child-care programs hasn’t had a face-lift since 1996.

Up for Renewal

Federal laws that underlie high-profile, long-standing education programs remain up for reauthorization in Congress—and in many cases are long overdue for a rewrite.

Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act

  • What it does: Governs vocational education programs and is the largest federal program for high schools.
  • Where it stands: Last renewed in 2006. House education committee has held public hearings on the issue.

Child Care and Development Block Grant Act

  • What it does: Governs major child-care grants.
  • Where it stands: Last renewed in 1996. Senate education committee unanimously approved a bipartisan reauthorization last summer. It is awaiting floor action. No action in the House so far.

Education Sciences Reform Act

  • What it does: Governs the Institute of Education Sciences.
  • Where it stands: Last renewed in 2002. House education committee has held hearings on the issue.

Elementary and Secondary Education Act

  • What it does: Governs Title I and other key K-12 education programs. Most recent iteration is the No Child Left Behind Act.
  • Where it stands: Last renewed in 2002. In July, the House passed a reauthorization that received only GOP support. The Senate education committee approved its own bill to renew the law in June. It received only Democratic support.

Head Start Act

  • What it does: Governs a nearly $8 billion program that offers early-childhood education services to low-income families.
  • Where it stands: Last renewed in 2007. Neither the House nor Senate has held hearings on reauthorization in this Congress. But Democratic leaders on the House and Senate education committees have introduced a bipartisan bill that would expand preschool to more 4-year-olds.

Higher Education Act

  • What it does: Governs teacher education programs, as well as student financial aid and college-access programs.
  • Where it stands: Last renewed in 2008. The House and Senate education committees have each held hearings on the issue.

Individuals With Disabilities Education Act

  • What it does: Governs special education programs.
  • Where it stands: Last renewed in 2004. Neither the House nor Senate education committee has held hearings on reauthorization in this Congress.

Workforce Investment Act

  • What it does: Governs job-training programs.
  • Where it stands: Last renewed in 1998. The House passed a reauthorization in March, with only two Democrats voting in favor. The Senate education committee approved a bipartisan version of the legislation in July.

Source: Education Week

Lawmakers themselves can’t even agree on whether this session of Congress is likely to be productive.

Rep. John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who chairs the House education committee, expresses optimism about the prospects for a number of measures. Those laws include the Education Sciences Reform Act, or ESRA, which governs education research policy, as well as renewals of career and technical education legislation and the HEA, which deals with teacher education and college-preparatory programs such as Upward Bound.

“These things aren’t happening easily, and quickly, but it doesn’t mean we’re not continuing to work,” Mr. Kline said in a recent interview.

And even if lawmakers fall short of completing their tasks, he expects that negotiations this year could help inform work on the measures down the road.

“We’d like to get some [bills] done this year, and where we can’t, we’d like them all teed up in the House and Senate so that [we] can move very quickly in the next Congress,” he said, after the 2014 midterm elections.

But in an interview, the top Democrat on the committee, Rep. George Miller of California, painted a much darker political picture. In particular, he sees conservative Republicans’ skepticism about the federal role in education as a major stumbling block to collaboration.

“This is not really a legislating Congress,” said Mr. Miller, who has worked across the aisle on multiple pieces of legislation, including the No Child Left Behind Act, which became law 12 years ago this month. “A good chunk of their caucus doesn’t think that the federal government should be involved [in education] at all,” he said of the House Republicans.

Finishing the reauthorization of the ESEA by the end of the Obama administration is a long shot, he added.

Funding Issues

It’s possible that Congress could bypass the politically toxic reauthorization of the ESEA to focus instead on lower-profile bills, such as a rewrite of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. That law, last renewed in 2006, governs the largest federal program for high schools.

The House has held hearings on the measure, and Senate Democratic aides have had early discussions with GOP staff members on a process for a reauthorization. The Senate education committee hopes to move it through the committee at some point this year.

But there are political barriers to even the most wonkish bills.

House lawmakers came close to agreement on a reauthorization of the ESRA law, typically a politically low-key piece of legislation dealing with education research. But the two sides hit an impasse when it came to authorization levels, which set recommended annual spending for programs and aren’t considered binding.

House Republicans wanted to freeze ESRA authorization levels at fiscal 2012 levels. But that didn’t fly with House Democrats, who argued that a freeze would give the program no room to grow.

The dissolution of talks last month disappointed advocates who had been hoping that bipartisan ESRA negotiations could set the stage for further collaboration on bigger bills, including the ESEA law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Higher Education Act, which was last renewed in 2008.

“We had been hoping that ESRA would break the logjam” on education legislation, said Michele McLaughlin, the president of the Knowledge Alliance, a nonprofit organization in Washington that advocates greater use of research in education policy, and a former aide to Democrats on the Senate education committee.

Instead, the breakdown in bipartisan collaboration underscored the political divisions that have made it tough to get almost anything done in Congress over the past three years. And it highlighted a sticking point that may arise again as lawmakers seek movement on the wide range of legislation awaiting renewal: Congress will have to agree on authorization levels for each of those bills.

“If they can’t resolve silly issues like that, it’s hard to see how they ever get anything done,” said Vic Klatt, a former longtime aide to Republicans on the House education committee who now works as a principal at the Penn Hill Group, a government-relations firm in Washington. That’s not to say the first session of this Congress was entirely fruitless.

In March, the House of Representatives passed a reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act, which governs adult education, with mostly GOP support.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee also approved its own bipartisan renewal of that law and a reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which governs grants to help low-income parents cover the cost of child care. That legislation hasn’t been renewed since 1996 and is the education bill best positioned to proceed to the floor of the Senate soon, said an aide to Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the help committee.

Divisive Legislation

Both Sen. Harkin and Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the committee, see potential for movement this year, particularly on the workforce-investment and child-care-grant laws. Each pointed out that the Senate committee has had a relatively productive year in a relatively unproductive Congress, getting 10 bills over the finish line, many of which had to do with other areas of its jurisdiction, such as health and labor.

“Basically, the help committee has worked hard and in a bipartisan way, even when we disagreed, producing important legislation that has passed the Congress,” Sen. Alexander said in an email to Education Week.

Still, a more divisive piece of legislation remains one of Sen. Harkin’s highest education priorities: A sweeping measure to entice states to expand their prekindergarten offerings. That legislation, which was introduced by Sen. Harkin and Rep. Miller, is based on a proposal floated by President Obama in his State of the Union address last year.

The pre-K bill has drawn a couple of GOP co-sponsors in the House, but its $27 billion price tag over the first five years means it’s likely to be roundly rejected by most Republicans.

Rep. Kline also touted a narrower bill for the reauthorization of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which President Obama signed in September.

And Rep. Kline pointed to other accomplishments over the past year, including student-lending legislation based on a proposal by the Obama administration and congressional Republicans to tie student-loan rates more closely to market forces. But advocates note that the legislation was completed under duress, since lawmakers were trying to reverse an unpopular hike in student-loan rates.

ESEA Prospects

Even though Congress wasn’t able to renew the ESEA last year, Rep. Kline sees House passage of a version of the law in July as a major accomplishment. The measure got no Democratic votes, but he contends that because it drew broad support from a diverse Republican caucus, its chances of eventually gaining bipartisan traction were bolstered.

Rep. Miller, however, counters that the measure failed to win support from the business community, the civil rights community, and some organizations, such as the National Education Association, representing practitioners.

Meanwhile, in June, the Senate education committee approved its own version of the ESEA, which passed with only Democratic support.

Like other legislation, the ESEA doesn’t need to be reauthorized for Congress to continue to finance the programs it governs, such as Title I grants to districts. But programs can become outdated and ineffective, making it less likely that congressional appropriators, who control the purse strings, will want to pour scarce dollars into them.

The situation could become even more complicated down the road, since both chambers’ education committees could have new chairmen when the next Congress begins, in 2015. Control of the two houses is up for grabs in the November elections.

The gavel is certain to turn over in the Senate, since this will be Sen. Harkin’s last year in Congress. Retirement could give Mr. Harkin an additional incentive to bring legislation to the finish line, Mr. Klatt said. On the other hand, negotiations on bills still pending after this year may need to restart once a new chairman is in place, potentially with a new staff.

For their part, educators are hoping that some of the bills will be completed before any changes in committee leadership occur.

“I hope we’re not having this same conversation again next January,” said Mr. Holliday, the Kentucky state chief.

A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 2014 edition of Education Week as Renewals of Education Laws Languish in Congress


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