Special Education

At Halfway Mark, Congress Faces Pile of Education Issues

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 17, 2018 5 min read
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The 115th Congress is about halfway over, and when it comes to education, GOP leaders in Congress accomplished one top priority thus far: ditching accountability rules for the Every Student Succeeds Act from the Obama administration. But what else have lawmakers gotten done?

Education Week has broken down the issues and the bills into two categories: those for which lawmakers have made discernible progress in the form of votes and those that are stuck in the mud. Omitted are appropriations for fiscal 2018 that will have a big impact on K-12 but weren’t yet decided as of the print deadline late last week, and the tax overhaul that President Donald Trump signed 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, an education policy 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

The House passed a bipartisan reauthorization of the federal career and technical education law last summer. In general, the legislation would provide more power to states. Congress got tantalizingly close to reauthorizing the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act in 2016 during its last session, and it seemed like the odds for a CTE bill looked relatively good this time. Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, the House education committee’s top Democrat, was optimistic when interviewed in 2017. But since the House floor vote, there’s been no significant Senate action. 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 federal juvenile-justice law last May. The legislation requires more data collection on youths in the justice system and sets new limits on the contact they can have with adult inmates. As with CTE, the House passed a juvenile-justice overhaul in 2016, giving hope for 2017. The Senate also passed a juvenile-justice bill last year.

> Higher Education

Last month, the House education committee passed the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform, or PROSPER, Act, which would reauthorize the Higher Education Act. Among other changes, the bill would ultimately eliminate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (which is available to teachers), raise certain 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 the maximum Pell award would remain the same. The main higher education law was last updated in 2008.

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, who 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, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Still at the Starting Line

> Student-Data Privacy

Because of 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 tried 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. No major overhaul of federal law is in the works, though. 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. Trump announced his plans in September to end DACA, which provides protections to people brought illegally to the United States 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 former President Barack 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 they might not.

> Head Start

Head Start was last updated 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 was last reauthorized in 2004. It’s not clear how much appetite there would have been for this Congress to tackle the law. Any major changes to IDEA, and IDEA funding, 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 the IDEA has created a polarized political climate around the issue.

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 Alexander. This update passed the Senate by unanimous consent in late 2015. Since then? Pretty much radio silence. Search through the bill till for SETRA or an ESRA update during this session of Congress, and you won’t find anything.

A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2018 edition of Education Week as At Halfway Mark, Congress Faces Pile of Education Issues

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