A bill to reauthorize the federal career and technical education law is so popular that it recently got unanimous approval from House lawmakers. Is there any other big K-12 bill that will get the same kind of love? Don’t bet on it.
That doesn’t mean federal lawmakers don’t have a “honey-do” list when it comes to education policy. True, the Every Student Succeeds Act covers a lot of the ground when it comes to public schools. (We’re still watching for when #FixESSA starts trending on Twitter, however.) But we’ve put together a list of policy issues that the 115th Congress could address, at least in theory. Scroll down to see them in detail, or click a policy issue in the menu below to jump to that one.
•Budget: It might be the thing Congress tackles first on this list. Remember, the current budget deal only runs through Sept. 30. And lawmakers in charge of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget so far have had mixed things to say about President Donald Trump’s plan for it—one top GOP senator all but publicly put a fork in it. As lawmakers craft their own potentially very different spending plan for the department for fiscal 2018, they’ll have big questions to answer. Will Congress adopt some, all, or none of the school choice proposals in it? (More on that below.) Will it preserve funding for big-ticket and popular programs like Title I and special education, or even give them increases?
The Education Department’s budget probably won’t be the thing that sends budget negotiations into a tailspin, but how much of Trump’s budget blueprint Congress rejects is something to watch.
•Higher Education: As we wrote earlier this year, an update to the Higher Education Act is a priority for Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee. Alexander reiterated this during a budget hearing in early June.
At the same time, Alexander might be tied up for some time with other matters, since he’s a key player in Senate attempts to overhaul health care. Secretary of Ecucation Betsy DeVos is attracting a lot of scrutiny in how she handles higher education issues. And compared to just a few years ago, the government’s handling of student debt is a much higher-profile issue. The possibility that an update to the HEA could get politically sticky ultimately might scare off lawmakers, at least for awhile.
•School Choice: While DeVos gets a ton of attention for her plans to promote school choice, she can’t do a whole heck of a lot to actually expand choice without Capitol Hill. And we haven’t seen any lawmaker single out maybe the more hotly disputed portions of the proposed 2018 budget—a $250 million private school choice initiative—for specific praise.
But irrespective of the budget, Congress may consider expanding school choice in some way, and in its own way, at some point. There’s continuing speculation that Congress might adopt a tax-credit program to boost private school scholarships as part of a broader plan to overhaul taxes. But that might be tricky to include in any such package, and there may not be much political appetite for it even among school-choice-friendly Republicans.
•Student-Data Privacy: This and the next item on the list are strongly connected to each other. In 2015 and 2016, lawmakers made a bipartisan effort to update the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA to you federal policy junkies. The two lawmakers I’m referring to are Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., and Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo. Their FERPA-refresh bill got some attention when they introduced it last year, but didn’t really go anywhere—educator groups liked the bill, but industry groups did not.
Polis recently announced that he will run for governor of Colorado next year, so it’s unclear how much time he’ll spend writing legislation and shepherding it through Congress. And there’s speculation that Messer, for that matter, will run for Senate in 2018. One incident that might weigh on lawmakers’ minds is that the Education Department recently shut down the federal student aid tool due to a hacker’s attempt to gain access to Trump’s tax info.
•Education Research: Some people thought that legislation to restructure the Institute for Education Sciences would be the next bill to get over the finish line after ESSA was signed in late 2015. But after the Senate passed the Strengthening Education Through Research Act around the same time ESSA became law, the issue went dark in Congress. Part of the reason may have been that lawmakers wanted to tackle FERPA and how it handles student data before tackling this issue. No FERPA overhaul, no education research update, goes the logic.
It’s worth noting that IES still does not have a permanent director, and hasn’t had one for over two years.
•Career and Technical Education: Yes, the House passed that bill we mentioned at the start of this post. But the House did the same late last year, only to see the legislation flop in the Senate due in part to a quarrel about the proper role of the education secretary in monitoring states. Folks on the Hill have pointed out to us that the 2016 bill was hurt because it got momentum so late in the 114th Congress, and right before a presidential administration. Still, it will be interesting to see how that House-backed bill fares in the upper chamber.
•Juvenile Justice: The House passed a bill to reauthorize federal law governing juvenile-justice issues back in May. (It also did so last year.) The legislation doesn’t deal extensively with education, but it does affect how data is collected on young people in the justice system, and also restricts the use of certain disciplinary measures (called “dangerous practices) in juvenile facilities, such as the use of pepper spray.
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