Fresh off a five-week summer sabbatical, members of Congress confront a handful of pressing education issues, high among them brokering a path forward for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization, with dueling bills having already passed in both chambers.
Perhaps most urgent, however, the federal fiscal year ends Sept. 30, and House and Senate appropriators have yet to pass a spending bill to fund the government past then. When they return, they’ll have just 10 legislative working days to negotiate a funding plan for federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education and its programs.
Also this fall, both chambers plan to ramp up their efforts to overhaul the federal higher education law, a topic that is garnering considerable attention from Democratic and Republican candidates in the 2016 presidential election.
“There’s a lot happening,” said Michael Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington education policy think tank. “To me, the big question is whether Congress finishes its work on ESEA reauthorization this fall. I think there’s a chance that it will, but there’s a lot to be done.”
Before lawmakers scattered to their home states, the Senate passed a bill in July with overwhelming bipartisan support that would roll back the federal role in education as embodied in the No Child Left Behind Act, the latest iteration of the ESEA.
With the House having already passed its Republican-backed bill earlier that month, the Senate’s passage marked a major step in updating the K-12 law, which has been languishing in the legislative pipeline since it expired in 2007. Now, the chairmen and ranking members of both chambers’ education committees will enter into a conference period when they’ll try to craft a legislative fix that can appease both chambers and also garner the president’s signature.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the education committee and the co-author of the Senate’s ESEA bill, said last month that he expects the group to hammer out a deal by the end of the fall.
“Fifty million children and 3.5 million teachers deserve to get a result, and we should be able to achieve that this fall,” he said.
But to do that, the House and Senate will have to overcome some serious policy differences.
Chief among those is how to beef up accountability in a way that appeases the concerns of Democrats and the civil rights community, which want stronger federal guardrails than in the House and Senate bills for the most disadvantaged students, while at the same time ensuring the small federal footprint that Republicans are adamant about.
“The question is: Can they find some language that indicates more clearly that states have to continue to consider the performance of subgroups when they’re designing their accountability system, and that they have to do something about the lowest-performing schools but leave flexibility about how that’s hashed out at the state level,” Petrilli said.
The conferees will also debate whether to maintain provisions in the House bill that are not in the Senate bill that would, for example, allow Title I dollars for low-income children to follow them to the schools of their choice. Also in the House bill but not in the Senate’s: the elimination of language in the current law that allows the federal government to punish schools and states where lots of students are opting out of tests.
Given the summer break, the group of conferees hasn’t begun negotiating yet, according to a Democratic aide, but members are working with the leadership in both chambers to begin scheduling meetings for this month.
House and Senate appropriators will have to work quickly on arriving back to Washington to avert a government shutdown by the end of the fiscal year—something that could be complicated by conservative Republicans who are trying to defund Planned Parenthood.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warned his caucus against shutting down the government over the issue. But if his words aren’t heeded, it could spell trouble for a handful of federal education programs, especially for those that aren’t forward-funded, like the $8.5 billion Head Start program and the $1.3 billion Impact Aid program. Impact Aid funds schools that miss out on local tax revenue from the federal government, usually because they are located on federal land. Most federal education programs are forward-funded, meaning their annual appropriations are typically used the following year.
To be sure, the House and Senate this year are further along in the appropriations process for the bills that fund 12 federal agencies than they have been in more than a decade.
The House appropriations committee passed a fiscal 2016 spending bill that would slash funding for the Education Department and its programs by $2.8 billion from its current level of $67.2 billion. The Senate appropriations committee approved a bill that would cut funding by $1.7 billion. Both would eliminate dozens of programs, including high-profile Obama administration priorities like School Improvement Grants, Preschool Development Grants, Investing in Innovation, and the Teacher Incentive Fund.
The end of this fiscal year also brings an end to the budget deal negotiated in 2013 by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., which set funding levels above what was outlined in the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.
President Barack Obama has promised to veto any spending bill that locks in sequester-level funding, so appropriators will have to decide whether to work out a new budget deal or pass a stop-gap spending measure that would simply continue funding programs at their current levels.
But the looming budget battle could have a silver lining, said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, the director of social policy and politics at Third Way, a Washington think tank that seeks to find common ground on controversial policy issues.
“It’s very possible that the tea party just-say-no crowd will be distracted by other epic battles, like shutting down the government to defund Planned Parenthood or refusing to raise the debt ceiling,” she said. “That just might give Chairmen Alexander and [Rep. John] Kline and ranking members Murray and [Rep. Bobby] Scott the room they need to find a deal on ESEA.”
Although Congress isn’t banking on being able to overhaul the Higher Education Act this year—there isn’t enough time on the legislative calendar for such a sweeping rewrite—both chambers are aiming to lay down significant groundwork before resuming next year.
The postsecondary education law, which expired at the end of 2013, is an extensive piece of federal legislation that includes the entire student-loan system, the Pell Grant tuition-assistance program for low- and middle-income students, teacher-preparation provisions, and various programs that help smooth the path for disadvantaged students into higher education.
In May, Alexander and Murray, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate education committee, respectively, announced they would begin working together to overhaul the Higher Education Act in the same bipartisan way they worked to broker an ESEA bill.
Since then, they’ve established working groups on issues including accountability, accreditation, college affordability and financial aid, and campus sexual assault and safety. They’ve held eight hearings and plan to hold more this fall before drafting a proposal.
“With the packed calendar, it seems unlikely they will be able to actually move HEA this year,” Erickson Hatalsky said. “But it would be a huge step forward if they released a bipartisan draft, which is in the realm of possibility.”
The House, meanwhile, has begun a more piecemeal process. Kline, the Minnesota Republican who heads the education committee, has been introducing smaller bills aimed at updating parts of the law one at a time.
Higher education has also been a highlight on the campaign trail, where presidential hopefuls from both parties have been laying out their visions for a more affordable postsecondary experience.
A version of this article appeared in the September 09, 2015 edition of Education Week as ESEA, Budget, Higher Ed. Issues On Agenda as Congress Returns