Lawmakers must also chart a new future for the Pell Grant program, which offers grants to low-income students to enroll in postsecondary programs. The Pell program is facing a serious shortfall of roughly $7 billion annually, in part due to increased demand for the grants from more students seeking a higher education during the economic downturn. So far, Congress and the administration have yet to come up with a plan to put the program on firmer fiscal footing over the long-term.
Fiscal concerns have been an issue in both the congressional races and in the presidential campaigns, particularly since Mitt Romney, the GOP nominee, selected U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the author of an austere budget blueprint, as his running mate. Mr. Ryan's plan seeks to tamp down domestic discretionary spending, the broad category that includes education.
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who oversees the panels that deal with K-12 funding and policy, sees the future of federal spending in areas like education as the "starkest difference at play" in the 2012 campaign, said Kate Cyrul Frischmann, a spokeswoman for the senator.
If Republicans are able to defy predictions and take over the Senate, they will likely seek to scale back the Department of Education. Mr. Romney has said he would like to shrink the department, and possibly combine it with another agency. (Reading K-12 Tea Leaves If a Romney Victory, Oct. 3, 2012.)
But the big formula programs that all school districts depend on--Title I grants for disadvantaged students and state grants for special education--aren't expected to be first to the chopping block. Instead, GOP lawmakers are more likely to seek to scrap programs that have been at the heart of the Obama administration's K-12 agenda, such as Race to the Top, the Investing in Innovation grant program, the School Improvement Grant program, and Promise Neighborhoods. Those programs were all slated for elimination in previous spending bills written by Republicans on the House appropriations committee--and they were restored after negotiations with the Democratic Senate.
Prospects for ESEA
The focus on postsecondary education and on spending issues means renewal of the ESEA could be pushed to 2014 or even beyond, particularly since most states have now been granted waivers from key portions of the No Child Left Behind Act, the law's much-maligned current version. Still, Republicans on the House education committee and Democrats on the Senate panel that oversees K-12 policy listed renewing the law among their priorities for next year, in emails to Education Week.
And, in the next Congress, lawmakers' to-do list is going to get even longer.
Nearly every major education bill is up for renewal, including the ESEA; the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Program, the largest federal program for high schools; the Community Development Block Grant program, which includes child-care funds for communities; the Workforce Investment Act, which deals with job-training; the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which covers special education; the Higher Education Act, which sets policy for the student lending program as well as teacher education; and the Education Sciences Reform Act, which governs the Institute of Education Sciences, the Education Department's research arm.
Many of those measures have yet to be considered by either the House or Senate education committees.
"I don't ever remember a situation like this," said Vic Klatt, who has worked on education policy in Washington for decades, including as a top aide to Republicans on the House Education panel, and is now a principal at Penn Hill Group, a government-relations organization in Washington. "If Congress does not get its act together soon, it will become irrelevant to federal education policy. The administration will continue to manage policy in an almost unchecked manner."
But if the GOP gains control of both houses of Congress and the White House, lawmakers may choose to act quickly on ESEA reauthorization, because Republicans are unhappy with the administration's granting of waivers from portions of the NCLB law, which they see as usurping congressional authority, a Senate Republican aide said.
In that case, the final legislation could look like a package of measures passed by the House Education and the Workforce Committee last year, which would slim down the Education Department and get the federal government largely out of the business of school improvement. They would also require school districts to develop teacher evaluation systems based, at least in part, on student achievement.
Aside from teacher evaluations, that legislation tracks fairly closely with bills introduced in the Senate by a cadre of Republicans.
(c)2012 Education Week (Bethesda, Md.)
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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