Washington at Work At Last or At Least for the Time Being

Where Things Stand at the Moment

Congress has begun the second session of the 113th Congress with lots of things to do. First and foremost was to raise the debt ceiling before the end of February. Congress met the deadline with days to spare before it went out on the President’s Day recess. It was a clean bill — a first. Republicans had suffered politically from the shutdown, so they did not want to be saddled with the country defaulting on the debt. A little factoid: Congress has raised the debt ceiling 42 times since 1980.

The long-awaited Farm Bill was passed by Congress and signed into law by the President. It makes some significant changes, including eligibility for the Food Stamp program. Also included in the bill is funding and program language for School Lunch. This bill was a long time in the making, but both parties seem to be reasonably satisfied with the result.

The administration’s ConnectEd proposal to update the E-Rate is moving towards implementation. The Federal Communications Commission has given its blessing and increased the 2014 ante for libraries and schools to $2 billion (paid for through the universal service fund fee on your phone bills). FCC Chair Tom Wheeler has committed to funding all Priority One applicants in 2014 as long as they get their applications in by the end of March deadline. This does not require Congressional action, but there may be some. One outstanding question is, from where is the money coming?

There is an energetic push for Early Learning. In February, the House and Senate authorizing committees have held hearings on the issue. There will be an active effort during this session of Congress to pass some type of legislation.

Immigration Reform may be dead in the water for this session. Negotiations and conversation continue to try to find some common ground from which to work on both sides of aisle and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Speaker of the House John Boehner did dampen hopes during recent remarks, but it has not killed other member efforts to come up with a compromise bill. However, Senator Charles Schumer and a few others have not given up.

The President releases his proposed FY 2015 Budget on March 4. This is a formality, but given the December budget agreement, the numbers may be more realistic than usual. Will it be totally dead on arrival is a question. There maybe more fact than fiction in this proposed budget given the compromises made to get a budget deal at the end of 2013 to avoid sequestration.

Unfinished Business

Lots of legislation is on the table and most likely will not be completed prior to the end of this session, which is shortened by the mid-term elections in November.

Some bills of interest that need to be reintroduced during this session since they are overdue for reauthorization are:

  • Elementary and Secondary Education Act (aka — No Child Left Behind): is long overdue for reauthorization. There will be another attempt in both House and Senate this session, but it is doubtful for it to pass unless members want to provide a legacy bill for retiring Senator Tom Harkin and Congressman George Miller.
  • Workforce Investment Act: Also, very overdue for a rewrite but philosophical differences seem to always stymie a new bill. There are some new job training proposals, but there seems to be some resistance to them.
  • Perkins Act (Career and Technical Education): The administration has proposed to change the act so it reforms high schools. It will be interesting to see what happens to this legislation over the next several months.
  • Higher Education Act: It, too, is overdue for reauthorization but it is likely to be addressed in parts by splitting the higher education programs from student financial aid. The latter having a greater level of interest on the Hill to improve how we provide aid to postsecondary students.
  • Institute for Educational Sciences needs to be reauthorized, but definitely not a high priority on the Hill.
  • Numerous other education and related issue bills have been or plan to be introduced. Only a few may see the light of day and get a hearing or even a vote.

Other Issues Under Consideration

Individual members of Congress and the administration have raised several education and related issues through legislative or regulatory proposal that include student loan policy, higher education accountability, student safety, abuse of special education students, early learning, Pell Grant funding, linking workforce training and skills with high school reform, and assessment policy and practice.

Implications for the Changing of the Guard

Every week, senior members of the House and Senate announce that they are not running for re-election meaning they are retiring from Congress. Others are finding themselves in very contentious primary election battle. The face of Congress will be very different beginning in January 2015.

Several of the retiring members hold chair, ranking member positions or were active on key education and related issue committees. These include:

  • Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education. Labor and Pensions, and serves on the Appropriations Committee
  • Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) does not serve directly on any committee but he has had a significant voice in the budget process
  • Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Chair of the Senate Finance Committee over seeing tax legislation is now U.S. Ambassador to China
  • Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.), Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. This includes technology, the e-rate and other key areas related to education.
  • Congressman George Miller (D-Calif.), Ranking member on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce
  • Congressman Howard (Buck) McKeon (R-Calif.), member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce (and former Chair of the Committee)
  • Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce

An important question is who will replace Harkin and Miller in the leadership positions on the respective committees? There has been little public discussion on the Senate side except for the mention of Patty Murray (D-Wa.). But it is very unlikely she will give up chair of the Senate Budget Committee. In the House, the conversation has focused on Bobby Scott (D-Va.) to take the ranking member position since Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) has just resigned from Congress. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has already taken Baucus’ place as chair of Senate Finance. Senator Jay Rockefeller was the lead promoter for the E-Rate.

Mid-term Elections and Education Implications

A great deal is at stake in both the Congress and states when it comes to the November 2014 mid-term elections. From the Washington, D.C., perspective, it is the control of both the House and Senate. Given the number of retirements, competitive primaries and even some very competitive races, control of both houses is up for grabs. The Senate more than the House is at risk of change.

Numerous House and Senate members are confronted with tough primaries. Many are Republicans being challenged by Tea Party or other conservatives, but there are several House Democrats with tough primaries including Michael Honda (D-Calif.) Other difficult races for incumbents or vacant seats in both houses are in the states of Missouri, Arkansas, Montana, Oklahoma, Texas, California, New York, New Hampshire, Hawaii, West Virginia, Virginia, Alaska, Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and several others.

States that have gubernatorial and chief states school officer elections in November 2014 are: California, Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Georgia.

States with just gubernatorial elections that are on a watch list include Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maryland, Delaware, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

All of these have implications for state education budgets for K-12 and postsecondary, new education initiatives, teacher salaries and accountability and possibly even changing school funding formulas.

In Conclusion

No one in his or her right mind can predict what will happen in November. No matter what the results, they have implications at the federal and state level for education funding, leadership, policy and practice. Some results will have greater impact than others.

If nothing else, things will continue to be interesting and maybe even more so depending on the issue. And, if control of either house of Congress changes, then there will be significant changes in the stewardship over legislation, setting of priorities, and what may make it through committees and pass on the floor.

It is a waiting game. One can anticipate some action on education issues in the coming months, but it is unknown whether some of the major bills will come to fruition. We will have a better idea in the few several months. Wait and see!