Reading & Literacy

Democratic Congress to Step Up Department Oversight

By Alyson Klein — December 19, 2006 9 min read
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Attention, Bush administration officials: Get ready to raise your right hand and swear under oath.

That’s the message from congressional Democrats, who say the Republican-led Congress has been lax in overseeing federal agencies, including the Department of Education.

The two veteran Democrats preparing to chair the education committees—Rep. George Miller of California and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts—say Republican lawmakers have largely looked the other way while the GOP administration has employed questionable practices for distributing federal grants, done little to gauge the effectiveness of tutors hired with federal dollars, and let states slide on some of the teacher-quality requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.

New Sheriff in Town

With the Democrats taking over both houses of Congress next month, they say they plan to step up oversight of federal agencies, including the Department of Education. Some possible areas for inquiry:

READING FIRST: Did the Education Department do enough to prevent conflicts of interest among grant reviewers and consultants with ties to particular organizations and commercial programs?

STUDENT FINANCIAL AID: Are banks giving unfair deals to students in the federal loan program?

TEACHER QUALITY: Has the department done enough to ensure that “highly qualified” teachers are working in high-poverty schools, as required by the No Child Left Behind Act?

GENDER EQUITY: Do recent department guidelines making it easier for school districts to have single-sex classes effectively protect students’ civil rights?

SOURCE: Education Week

“We need to ensure that education programs are working for students. We need to ensure that federal reading programs support programs that work, that student-loan programs put students before banks, and that federally funded tutoring programs are helping students succeed,” Sen. Kennedy, who is set to lead the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee starting next month, said in an e-mail responding to questions from Education Week.

Rep. Miller also looks forward to stepping up oversight of the executive branch when he takes the helm of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

“Mr. Miller believes that nearly every committee in the Republican-controlled Congress abdicated its oversight responsibilities over the last six years,” said Tom Kiley, a spokesman for Rep. Miller.

As of last week, the Democrats had a margin of 31 House seats going into the 110th Congress. In the Senate, they had a 51-to-49 advantage. That razor-thin majority was cast into uncertainty when Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., suffered a brain hemorrhage and underwent surgery. As of late last week, he was in critical but stable condition at a Washington hospital. If he were unable to serve the remaining two years in his term, South Dakota Gov. Michael Rounds, a Republican, would appoint a replacement, possibly giving control of the Senate to the Republicans.

Oversight is generally more relaxed when one party controls the White House and both houses of Congress, but Republican lawmakers have been especially deferential to President Bush, even by historical standards, according to Tom Loveless, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

“I would expect much stricter oversight” from the Democrats, Mr. Loveless said. He said some of the investigative spirit would be spurred by pure partisanship. Throughout Mr. Bush’s presidency, Congress generally has focused on “work[ing] with the White House on legislation,” but lawmakers will now be “making sure that Democratic interests are implemented by a Republican White House,” he said. “That sets a different tenor.”

Katherine McLane, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said that the department “welcomes input from Congress on achieving the shared goals of the No Child Left Behind Act.”

Many observers expect Democratic-led House and Senate education committees to quickly launch investigations into the Reading First program, a signature Bush administration program that has provided nearly $5 billion in federal grants to schools to promote research-based reading instruction.

The program came under fire from the Education Department’s inspector general, John P. Higgins Jr., in a September report that charged Reading First had favored certain vendors and consultants, and that department officials did not adequately monitor potential conflicts of interest among grant reviewers. (“Scathing Report Casts Cloud Over ‘Reading First’,” Oct. 4, 2006.)

More-aggressive congressional oversight could have headed off some of those problems, said Richard Long, the director of government relations for the International Reading Association, based in Newark, Del.

“Had there been active oversight hearings, there would have been a mechanism to bring forward these issues, and the department could have addressed them,” Mr. Long said. Enough questions had been raised about the department’s implementation of the program to warrant such hearings at least a year before the inspector general’s report was released, he said.

Now, he said, Congress must complete a thorough review and seek to fill in the gaps between various reports by the inspector general on the program.

“No one’s ever answered the question of ‘Has there been conflict of interest?’ ” Mr. Long said.

Such a congressional investigation could spark a broader inquiry into the Education Department’s process for approving contracts and grants. It’s still unclear to lawmakers whether the abuses in the Reading First program detailed by the inspector general were an anomaly or part of a systemic problem at the department, a Democratic Senate aide said.

The Democrats already have some ammunition on that topic. Rep. Miller in 2004 asked the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, to examine the procedures the department used for approving several grants, including one to the Arkansas education department to establish a virtual charter school in partnership with K12 Inc., a for-profit online education company founded by former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett. The GAO found that the department bypassed its own grant procedures in making that award. (“Dept. Bent Grant Rules, GAO Finds,” March 15, 2006.)

Behind Closed Doors

The education committees may also examine the department’s implementation of some provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. For instance, the federal law requires states to make sure highly qualified educators aren’t teaching only students from wealthier families. States must report on the number of highly qualified teachers working in high-poverty schools, as well as those teaching more-advantaged students.

Under the law, if there is a gap in that distribution, states must submit plans to deal with the problem. Recently, the Education Department has cracked down on the issue, requiring states to address the subject of teacher distribution in their accountability plans for the first time this year. But Sen. Kennedy and other Democratic lawmakers are still concerned that the department hasn’t pushed hard enough.

Congress may also take a look at the supplemental educational services mandated under the law for students in schools that don’t meet state achievement targets two years in a row. Some lawmakers, including Sen. Kennedy, say there is not enough quality control of private companies authorized by the states to provide the tutoring, and no mechanism for ensuring they are improving student achievement.

The education panels could also examine the Education Department’s process for approving state accountability plans, based on complaints from state officials that it lacks consistency and transparency. For instance, some states say they have sought certain changes to their accountability systems but were rejected, only to see other states get approval for similar revisions.

“There’s lots of complaints over treatment of states or states’ being turned down for certain deals,” said Mary Kusler, the assistant director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va. “All of the negotiations are behind closed doors.”

She said the system gives states little clear guidance on how to craft acceptable plans.

Congress is also interested in examining other particular provisions of the 5-year-old No Child Left Behind law, such as assessments and school restructuring. But most of the oversight on implementation of those aspects of the law will likely be coupled with the broader effort to reauthorize the measure, which is due to occur in 2007.

“We’ll be doing oversight on No Child Left Behind simultaneously alongside reauthorization,” Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich, who is expected to lead to lead the House education panel’s subcommittee overseeing K-12 policy, said in an interview.

Steve Forde, a spokesman for Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the outgoing chairman of the House education committee, called the Democrats’ criticism that Republicans have stinted on oversight “unfair, but not unexpected.”

He noted that the committee has held nearly a dozen hearings on the No Child Left Behind Act over the past year, scrutinizing the Education Department’s implementation of the law, including how states calculate the achievement of specially targeted groups of students, such as racial minorities. Mr. Forde also noted that the panel has examined abuses in the Head Start federal preschool program and excessive subsidies for lenders under federal aid programs for college students.

Letters and GAO Reports

Committee inquiries won’t be limited to programs authorized under the NCLB law.

Sen. Kennedy, for instance, would likely review the department’s recent final regulations allowing schools to experiment with single-sex classrooms under certain conditions, to make sure students’ civil rights are protected.

Mr. Kennedy also wants to investigate whether assessments for Head Start students are reliable. Right now, those tests are given to all Head Start students to gauge whether they are learning. Sen. Kennedy would like to keep the administration from broadly administering the tests until they are deemed effective.

Both committees appear almost certain to look into the federal student-loan program, which Sen. Kennedy and Rep. Miller have contended favors banks over college students. Mr. Kennedy wants to examine why some students have had difficulty consolidating their loans, among other issues.

Rep. Miller is also interested in looking into how schools in the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast region are faring under the Bush administration’s recovery efforts. He’s also concerned about reports of fraud and abuse at private behavior-modification facilities that serve troubled teenagers.

Despite the extensive list of possible areas for oversight, both the House and the Senate education committees have a full plate of legislative business to take care of, including the NCLB renewal and the long-overdue reauthorizations of the Higher Education Act and the Head Start program.

That might mean that the committees won’t hold hearings on many of the oversight issues, relying instead on other tools at their disposal, including sending letters to the administration or calling for more GAO reports. Those methods were available to Democrats as the minority party, but they carry more weight when they come from the party in control.

The education committees seem likely to forgo looking into issues purely for scandal-mongering purposes, said Jack Jennings, the director of the Center for Education Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization.

“I don’t think they’re going to spend a whole lot of time on issues that are just political,” he said. “They don’t want to be perceived as just blaming; they will be judged on how much they actually do.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 20, 2006 edition of Education Week as Democratic Congress to Step Up Department Oversight

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