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House Committee Backs Renewal of Higher Education Act

By Alyson Klein & Scott J. Cech — November 15, 2007 7 min read
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Reflecting bipartisan consternation over the rising price of a college education and other postsecondary issues, the House education committee voted unanimously today to send its version of a bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act to the full House.

The HEA was last renewed in 1998 and its reauthorization has been pending 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.

The House Education and Labor Committee spent hours fine-tuning the bill on Nov. 14 before approving the measure 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 chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. “It’s going to be watched much more closely than it has in the past.”

Price-Increase Rankings

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

Some members of the committee wanted to go further than that. Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., introduced an amendment that would have docked an offending institution 10 percent of certain forms of its federal grant aid until the college was removed from the watch list.

“I believe colleges as a whole have not focused on this as well as they should,” he said. “They have an overall cost responsibility.”

While Rep. Castle withdrew the amendment at Rep. Miller’s request, the chairman called the idea “on point” and “very tempting.”

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, graduation-rate, and other information for posting on a Web site. Colleges that end up on the federal watch list would also have to set up quality-efficiency task forces, under the bill.

Those requirements, said Mr. Nassirian, whose organization represents more than 10,000 higher education admissions and registration professionals, will need extra staff hours to meet. And since “colleges don’t print money in the basement,” he noted, “college tuition goes up” as a result.

Rachel Racusen, a spokeswoman for the House education committee, said the Web site referred to in the bill, the University and College Accountability Network, would be modeled on the Web site of the same name launched in September by the Washington-based National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, an organization of more than 900 private higher education institutions, including Harvard, Princeton, and Yale universities. (“Colleges Build Web Sites to Enable Campus Comparisons, Sans Ranks,” Sept. 12, 2007.)

Teacher Education

The House bill would also combine the three grant programs aimed at teacher education in the HEA into a single funding stream. The money 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 a living stipend to graduate students if they agreed to teach at disadvantaged schools for at least three years.

Teacher education programs could also use the money to bolster 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.

Reps. Phil Hare, D-Ill., and Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, offered an amendment to the bill that would allow the partnership grants to provide professional development, mentoring, and other training to prospective school administrators who want to serve in rural areas. The amendment was agreed to on a voice vote.

Jane E. West, the vice president of government relations for the Washington-based American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, said she was glad to see “a lot of comparability” between the House and Senate bills on the teacher-training grants.

But she said she hoped lawmakers who oversee spending would take into account the costs involved with the revamped partnership grants, especially given the requirement that students in the residency programs receive a living stipend.

“These are going to very expensive programs,” Ms. West said.

Ms. West also praised language she said would make it easier for colleges of education to get information about their graduates from states so that they can better track alumni after they enter the workforce.

Performance Pay

Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., offered an amendment that would 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.

Rep. Price said he crafted the amendment to address criticisms leveled against alternative-pay language in a draft bill to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, released earlier this year by the House education committee. Teachers’ unions vehemently oppose the provision in the draft bill because of language linking increased pay to student test scores and because they say it would infringe on collective bargaining rights.

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

The provision “is not prescriptive, it is flexible in its application,” Rep. Price said. But Rep. Miller said he would oppose the amendment, although he added that the committee would revisit performance-based pay, most likely in the reauthorization of the NCLB law.

“I’m no stranger to this controversy,” Rep. Miller said. “I’ve been an outspoken proponent of performance-based pay.” 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.

Adjunct-Teacher Idea Fizzles

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., introduced an amendment that would create an Adjunct Teacher Corps, which would allow professionals from outside education to lead classes in mathematics, science, and other subjects in which there is a shortage of qualified teachers.

Schools receiving grants under the amendment would have to provide preservice training and mentoring from certified teachers. President Bush proposed similar programs in his fiscal year 2007 and 2008 budget requests, but Congress has not provided funding for them.

“People like Bill Gates could teach computer science,” Rep. McMorris Rodgers said. “We have experts who want to help meet our qualified teacher shortage.”

Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., said he thought the Adjunct Teacher Corps amendment was “on the wrong track. It’s based on the assumption that Bill Gates would be a good teacher … [This would] essentially shortcut all of the steps in [training] a teacher who knows the pedagogy as well as the subject matter.” That amendment was defeated on a largely party-line roll call vote, 25-19. The education committee also approved an amendment that would permit applicants who were denied grants under the TRIO program, which help prepare students for college, to appeal such decisions before an administrative law judge. The measure was approved on a largely party-line vote, 29-15.

The committee unanimously accepted an amendment offered by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, that would prohibit a national curriculum for teacher education.

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