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What Congress Hasn’t Finished or Started: Data Privacy, Career-Tech, and Special Ed. Law

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 09, 2018 6 min read
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Just over a year ago, we profiled the big education issues facing Congress in its 115th session. We’re about halfway through that session, and GOP leaders in Congress did check the box on one to-do list item we put out there: ditching acccountability rules for the Every Student Succeeds Act from the Obama administration. But what else have lawmakers have accomplished?

We’ve broken down the issues and the bills into two categories: bills lawmakers have made discernible progress on in the form of votes, and issues or bills that are stuck in the mud. We’ve left out the fiscal 2018 budget, which obviously has a big impact on K-12 but is also its own can of unfinished worms, and tax reform, which we’ve covered extensively over the last couple of months before President Donald Trump signed it into law in December.

“It’s early still. There’s still a lot of time for things to be happening,” said Michele McLaughlin, a former Democratic Senate staffer who now leads the Knowledge Alliance, a policy advocacy and research group. “I think the tax debate took a toll on bipartisan relationships across the Senate. I don’t think this is exclusive to education. I just think it’s been very hard.”

Started but Not Finished

• Career and Technical Education

It may seem like a long time ago, but the House actually did pass a reauthorization of the federal career and technical education law last summer. In general, the legislation would provide more power to states. The lawmakers even did it on a bipartisan basis. Given that Capitol Hill got tantalizingly close to reauthorizing Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act in 2016 during the last session of Congress, it seemed like the odds for a CTE bill looked pretty good. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the House education committee’s top Democrat, was optimistic when we spoke to him in 2017. But since the House floor vote, there’s been no significant action on the Senate side. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, did introduce a bill last March to give states more flexibility when it comes to spending on CTE. But the Senate education committee hasn’t taken up that legislation, let alone any major CTE overhaul.

• Juvenile Justice

Similarly, the House passed a reauthorization of juvenile-justice law last May. The legislation requires more data collection on youth in the justice system, and puts new limits on contact they can have with adult inmates. And as with CTE, the House passed a juvenile-justive overhaul in 2016, giving hope for 2017. So far, the Senate hasn’t take up the House bill. UPDATE: We were remiss in not pointing out that the Senate did pass the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2017 by a voice vote in August. The legislation still need sto be reconciled with the House legislation.

• Higher Education

This one you’ve probably heard about. Last month, the House education committee passed the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act, which would reauthorize the Higher Education Act. Among other things, the bill would ultimately eliminate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (which is available to teachers), change federal loan limits, put a new “dashboard” in place to give prospective students more information about debt, and reauthorize the Pell Grant program for low-income students, though it wouldn’t change the maximum Pell award. The main higher education law was last updated in 2008.

“HEA seems to be the top priority for everyone,” McLaughlin said. Getting a new HEA over the finish line is a top priority for Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee. McLaughlin noted that at least with respect to health care, Alexander has continued working with his counterpart Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, the committee’s top Democrat. But a new higher education law crafted by Republicans might be an especially tough sell to fellow committee Democrats like Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Still at the Starting Line

• Student-Data Privacy

Due to political hot potatoes like new state data systems and ed-tech products, the personally identifiable information generated by K-12 students was a big alligator lawmakers were trying to wrestle with a few years ago. But now? There was an October push to make data-sharing easier for education research. And in November, the House commerce committee held a hearing about how companies collect and examine data. There’s no major overhaul of federal law in the works. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., did introduce a bill last year to prohibit U.S. Department of Education money from going to companies that have not implemented proper security procedures regarding personally identifiable information. It has not gotten a hearing.

• Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

This is perhaps the issue on this list with the highest profile. President Donald Trump announced his plans in September to end DACA, which provides protections to people brought to the U.S. illegally as children, but said he’d give Congress six months to come up with a legislative solution. About 250,000 school-age children have become eligible for DACA since Obama instituted it via executive order in 2012. Some kind of legal protections might be included in a fiscal 2018 appropriations deal later this month—or it might not.

• Head Start

The Higher Education Act might get more publicity, but it’s Head Start that’s languished longer without getting reauthorized—Congress last updated it in 2007. Two Republicans, Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, introduced the Head Start improvement Act. It would replace existing law with block grants for states and Native American tribes to use on early education programs. It has not gotten a hearing.

• Individuals With Disabilities Education Act

IDEA has both Head Start and the Higher Education Act beat—but not necessarily in a good way: It was last reauthorized in 2004. It’s not clear how much appetite there would have been this Congress to tackle the law. But the issue almost certainly became more complicated after special education took center stage during U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing about a year ago. The controversy DeVos sparked through her apparent lack of understanding about IDEA during that hearing has created a polarized political climate around the issue. Any major GOP push to overhaul IDEA might end up taking a ton of flak from Democrats. Democrats Jared Huffman of California and Jared Polis of Colorado have introduced bills designed to ramp up IDEA funding. Two Republicans, Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, have pushed a bill providing more school choice for special education students.

• Education Sciences Reform Act

The Strengthening Education through Research Act was introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee. This update to ESRA passed the Senate by unanimous consent in late 2015. Since then? Pretty much radio silence. Seach through the bill till for SETRA or an ESRA update during this session of Congress, and you won’t find anything.

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