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Higher Education Act May Finally See Action

By Alyson Klein — January 09, 2007 3 min read
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Teacher-quality programs could get extra attention—and resources—when Congress finally tackles the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, a piece of unfinished business that the incoming chairmen of the House and Senate education committees say will be a priority this year.

The reauthorization of the HEA, which was last renewed in 1998, has been languishing on Capitol Hill. Many of the law’s provisions were set to expire in 2003, but Congress has passed numerous extensions. The most recent renewal extends the measure to June 30.

The broad legislation authorizes many federal higher education programs, including Pell Grants, student loans, and initiatives in teacher education.

Democratic victories in the midterm elections have placed two lawmakers with a long interest in teacher quality at the helms of the education committees. During the last Congress, Rep. George Miller of California, who now chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, sponsored the proposed Teacher Excellence for All Children Act. Known as the TEACH Act, the measure would have bolstered professional development for new and veteran educators, expanded loan forgiveness for some teachers, and helped ensure that proven teachers were working in high-poverty schools.

“I think it’s all about teachers now,” Jane E. West, the vice president of government relations for the Washington-based American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, said of the effort to improve education. “There just seems to be an increasing consensus that we really need to address the critical shortage of teachers, and we need to move from thinking about highly qualified teachers to thinking about effectiveness. Knowing your content doesn’t necessarily mean you can instruct well.”

Some of the provisions from the TEACH proposal could be attached to the HEA renewal, possibly including a proposal calling for more money to develop data systems that track teachers’ quality by measuring their students’ gains from year to year. The data systems could eventually be used to evaluate the relative effectiveness of individual teacher education programs.

A Senate Democratic aide said that the bulk of the TEACH bill could be incorporated into a reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, which is also on Congress’ plate for this year, rather than into the HEA.

Student Loans

Higher education advocates also expect the new Democratic majority to place a higher priority on financing higher education programs, particularly federal student aid. During the midterm election campaign, House Democrats sharply criticized Republican leaders for trimming over $12 billion from the student-lending program through the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 and pledged to cut federal student-loan interest rates in half, from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent.

That proposal, which Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the new speaker of the House, has said would be passed within the Democrats’ first 100 hours in the majority, could eventually be attached to the HEA reauthorization, some lobbyists speculated. In the Senate, Mr. Kennedy has called for an expansion of the direct-lending program, which allows students to borrow from the federal treasury rather than from subsidized lenders, and expanding student-loan forgiveness for public-sector employees, such as teachers.

Democrats have generally been critical of Republicans’ flat-funding or outright cuts to Pell Grants, campus-based aid programs, including federal work-study, and college-preparation programs, such as TRIO. Education lobbyists say the Democratic-controlled House and Senate could bolster funding for those programs.

“While the new majority will undoubtedly face fiscal constraints,” said Bill Parsons, an associate director of government relations for the American Council on Education, an association representing 1,800 colleges and universities, “their stated commitment to halve at least some student-loan interest rates and achieve a $5,100 maximum Pell award has begun a completely different conversation on higher education policy in Washington, D.C.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2007 edition of Education Week as Higher Education Act May Finally See Action

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