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Lawmakers Prepare to Reconcile Bills to Renew HEA

By Alyson Klein — April 14, 2008 5 min read
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Congress is poised to finish crafting long-stalled legislation reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, providing the first comprehensive update in federal law covering teacher education and college-preparatory programs in nearly a decade.

The HEA, which governs a broad swath of federal higher education programs, was last reauthorized in 1998. The renewal has been pending since 2003, although Congress has passed separate legislation revamping student-lending programs usually governed under the HEA. Most recently, lawmakers approved the College Cost Reduction Act of 2007, which boosted Pell Grants and other student aid.

The House approved its version of the HEA renewal by a vote of 354-58 in February; the Senate passed its measure last July by a 95-0 vote. Lawmakers negotiating behind the scenes are expected to meet soon in a conference committee to reconcile the two bills. They hope to finalize a compromise measure this spring.

On teacher education issues, the two chambers’ bills are more alike than different. Both would combine three separate programs aimed at teacher-training programs into a single funding stream focused on helping school districts collaborate with colleges on preparing prospective teachers.

Under the measures, teacher colleges could work with needy districts to offer beefed-up field experiences, including teacher residencies, which allow students seeking a master’s degree in education to work alongside an experienced educator while taking graduate courses. The grants could also be used for induction programs, which provide ongoing support for beginning teachers, including mentoring.

New Programs

The new language “is a lot more prescriptive” on how colleges can use the partnership grants than current law, said Brittny McCarthy, the director of federal relations for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. She said that would help bring the HEA into line with the No Child Left Behind Act, with its emphasis on teacher quality.

The House bill also contains language that would allow the partnership grants to be used to train K-12 superintendents and other administrators, as well as teachers. That language isn’t in the Senate bill, but supporters are hoping it will remain intact through the conference process.

“It would really be a much more dynamic program [for leadership preparation] than we’ve seen before” in the HEA, said Mary L. Kusler, the assistant director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators, in Arlington, Va. In the past, she said, the higher education law has “been very focused on preparing teachers to enter the classroom. … But there was no focus whatsoever on leadership.”

The House measure would also establish “Teach to Reach” grants, which could be used to support partnerships between teacher colleges and high-need districts to help general education teachers work with students in special education placed in their classrooms.

“For the most part, we’re pretty happy” with both bills, said Jane E. West, the vice president of government relations for the Washington-based American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

“Our big push this year is around appropriations,” she added. “They’ve got some really good ideas in here. … But we really need a concerted effort to provide some money.”

TRIO Clash

Last year, Congress slashed funding for the Teacher Quality Enhancement grants, which help finance teacher education, from $59.9 million to $33.7 million for fiscal 2008. The administration has proposed eliminating the program in fiscal 2009.

The House bill also would authorize new programs, including “centers of excellence” that would allow teacher education colleges that serve underrepresented minority populations, including those at predominantly black universities and at tribal colleges, to receive grants of at least $500,000 to provide mentoring and support to new teachers and principals, among other activities.

Higher Education Act Reauthorization

The House and Senate have each approved different bills to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, and lawmakers are working on hammering out a compromise measure. Some key differences between the two bills:

Teacher Preparation:
Both bills would focus resources on beefed-up field experiences, but the House bill includes new programs, such as “centers of excellence,” which would provide grants to bolster teacher education at minority-serving colleges and universities.

TRIO Program:
The House bill would permit certain colleges and other organizations rejected for TRIO grants, which help prepare disadvantaged students for college, to appeal the decision to the Department of Education. The Senate bill lacks that provision.

College Costs:
The House bill would require colleges that appear on a federal tuition-increase “watch list” to establish task forces aimed at improving efficiency. The Senate bill does not include that requirement.

State Appropriations:
The House bill would mandate that states maintain a certain level of funding for higher education or risk losing federal matching funds for scholarships. The Senate measure has no such provision.

Sources: Education Week; American Council on Education

The House measure would also authorize grants of up to $2 million for districts, state education agencies, and colleges to train teachers to use technology better. And the House bill also authorizes funding to recruit students majoring in high-need subjects, such as mathematics, science, and foreign languages, into teaching.

Those programs are not included in the Senate legislation.

Both bills contain provisions that would make it easier for teacher education programs to track their graduates into the classroom. The language would give teacher colleges access to information, including achievement data for their graduates’ students, which has been difficult to get because of potential conflicts with school privacy laws, Ms. West said.

The House bill would scrap a set of guidelines issued by the Department of Education in 2006 for Upward Bound programs, one of the TRIO programs that help prepare disadvantaged students for higher education.

The rules set new parameters for participation. Under the guidelines, 30 percent of a program’s participants must be at risk for academic failure. And to be eligible for Upward Bound, students must have completed 8th grade but not yet finished 10th. Previously, any student who had not yet finished 11th grade could be selected.

TRIO proponents oppose the department’s guidelines.

The Bush administration’s approach would largely shift Upward Bound’s focus from college access to dropout prevention, and would take admissions decisions “out of the hands of the local educator,” said Susan Trebach, a spokeswoman for the Council for Opportunity in Education, a Washington-based organization that champions TRIO programs.

The council supports the House bill’s language that would abolish the guidelines, and it hopes lawmakers will include that language in the final bill.

By contrast, the Senate bill would keep the requirement that nearly a third of a program’s participants be at risk of failing. But the Senate measure would permit programs such as Upward Bound to serve 11th graders.

The House bill also includes a provision that would allow organizations that have been rejected for TRIO grants based on credit for prior experience to appeal that decision to the Education Department. TRIO advocates sought the language after the department turned down a group of applicants, who then contended that reviewers did not give them proper credit for prior experience.

The White House vehemently opposes the TRIO provisions, particularly in the House version. In a statement on the legislation released in February, just before the House voted to approve its HEA measure, the administration said the bill would inhibit the Education Department’s ability to “effectively manage” TRIO programs.

The administration specifically criticized the language allowing applicants to appeal grant-application decisions, saying it would “give rejected TRIO applicants special appeal rights not available in other grant programs.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Lawmakers Prepare to Reconcile Bills to Renew HEA

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