Federal

Higher Education Act Renewal Advances

By Alyson Klein & Scott J. Cech — November 27, 2007 4 min read
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The House education committee has given overwhelming bipartisan approval to a long-stalled bill to renew the Higher Education Act that would intensify scrutiny of tuition hikes and help schools of education offer beefed-up field experiences to prospective teachers.

The HEA was last renewed in 1998, and its reauthorization has been pending in Congress since 2003. The law governs a broad swath of federal student-aid and other higher education programs, including those covering teacher training. In July, the Senate passed its own bill to reauthorize the law, by a vote of 95-0.

The House Education and Labor Committee spent some nine hours fine-tuning the bill on Nov. 14 before approving the measure 44-0 the next day. Much of the discussion centered around the federal role in containing college costs.

“Policymakers are deeply concerned about these increases,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the committee’s chairman. “[The issue is] going to be watched much more closely than it has in the past.”

The bill would require the U.S. secretary of education to publish an annual ranking of colleges and universities based on changes in their tuition and fees over the preceding three years. Those whose increases excessively outpaced those of their peers would be placed on what the bill calls a “higher education price-increase watch list.”

New Reporting Rules

A federal effort to limit tuition and fee increases is a great idea, said Barmak Nassirian, the associate executive director of the Washington-based American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, but “the problem with a government measure aimed at containing costs is that the government is the biggest sinner of all on containing costs.”

He pointed out that the bill calls for a raft of new reporting requirements, including a mandate that colleges compile pricing information for an Education Department Web site and post graduation-rate and other information on a separate site. Colleges that ended up on the federal watch list would also be required to set up “quality-efficiency” task forces to compare operating costs with those of other institutions and make recommendations for cutting expenses.

Those mandates, said Mr. Nassirian, whose group represents more than 10,000 admissions and registration officials, would require extra staff hours to meet. And since “colleges don’t print money in the basement,” he said, “college tuition goes up” as a result.

Among its other provisions, the House bill would combine the three grant programs aimed at teacher education in the HEA into a single funding stream. The money would be distributed under the Teacher Quality Enhancement Grants, which received nearly $60 million in fiscal 2007. It would bolster partnerships between colleges of education and school districts to offer enhanced field experiences for prospective educators and sustained support for fledgling teachers. The Senate HEA measure includes similar language.

Both bills would gear federal grants toward helping colleges 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 taking graduate-level courses. The programs would provide living stipends to graduate students if they agreed to teach at disadvantaged schools for at least three years.

Performance-Pay Debate

Teacher education programs could also use the money to improve 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.

Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., offered an amendment to permit districts applying for the teacher-quality-enhancement grants to use the money to create performance-based pay programs for teachers. He argued that the alternative-pay programs would bolster recruitment efforts.

He said he crafted the amendment to address criticisms of alternative-pay language in a recent draft bill to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, released by the House education committee. Unions oppose the draft provision because of language linking increased pay to test scores, and because they say it would infringe collective-bargaining rights.

Rep. Price said his amendment would require that performance-based-pay programs be developed with “buy-in” from teachers, and would not require that districts take test scores into account in determining pay increases.

Rep. Miller said he would oppose the amendment but his committee would revisit performance-based pay, most likely in the reauthorization of the NCLB law.

“I’ve been an outspoken proponent of performance-based pay,” Rep. Miller said. But, he added, “when you have existing collective bargaining agreements, it’s very clear that they have to be respected. Before we’re going to advance language from this committee, we’re going to figure out how that can be done.”

The amendment was defeated on a largely party-line vote, 26-16.

A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as Higher Education Act Renewal Advances

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