Washington Update: It’s Crunch Time

There are numerous deadlines and decisions to be made in Washington, DC, before the end of the fiscal year on September 30, the 2nd session of the 115th Congress, and mid-term elections.

Yes, it is crunch time in DC. There are numerous deadlines and decisions to be made before the end of the fiscal year on September 30, the 2nd session of the 115th Congress, and mid-term elections. First, the budget deadline for Congress; several critical decisions on education policy and guidelines; reauthorize the Career and Technical Education Act; and lastly, finish the any other important business prior to the 2018 November mid-term elections.

Appropriations

Congress is desperately trying to pass the FY2019 spending bills before the end of this fiscal year. If Congress were successful, it would be the first time in a decade it passed them on time!

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees each passed $71 billion funding bills for the Department of Education, but the timeline is likely too tight to pass the full bills out of each chamber and reconcile differences between the House and Senate.

Congress’ August recess is approaching. The House intends to recess until after Labor Day. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is keeping the Senate in session for most of the month to finish its outstanding business. This prevents one-third of the senators up for re-election from going home to campaign.

Next stop for the education budget is the House floor. Leaders in both chambers have been bringing “mini-bus” bills to the floor—jargon for bills that combine several separate appropriations bills. There is a total of 12 spending bills.

The education appropriation bills from each chamber will differ slightly. Many are predicting another continuing resolution, because the timeline is too tight to pass the full bills out of each chamber and reconcile the differences.

Some details from the House Appropriations Committee mark-up:

  • Increased funds for NIH at $1.25 billion, for a total of $38.3 billion.
  • Increases for important education programs like TRIO, career and technical education, and early childhood education initiatives.
  • Boosting funding for the School Safety National Activities program. The committee upped funding to $90 million.
  • Avoids most of the controversial issues from last year, including the administration’s proposed school choice programs and huge cuts to programs for teacher training and afterschool programs. The path is also made easier by an existing deal setting a higher total spending cap.
  • Small boosts for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act grants, and level funding for other big K–12 programs, including teacher training, Title I grants for low-income students, and afterschool programs.
  • A boost to career and technical education grants and charter schools.
  • Leaves the amount of the Pell Grant flat.

For greater detail:
Summary of the bill.
Bill report.
Text of the bill.

The Senate education package adds $100 to the maximum value of a Pell Grant, but not enough to keep pace with inflation. Student aid advocates who had hoped to see a substantial boost to the Pell Grant will need to settle for a modest increase—if any—in a 2019 spending package. The Senate proposal raises the maximum Pell Grant to $6,195 for the 2019-20 academic year.

Overall spending on most college access or student aid programs will be roughly in line with numbers from the March omnibus appropriations bill. Career and work-force training would receive $1.2 billion in funding. Other college aid programs like the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant and Federal Work-Study would be levelly funded in both proposals.

Pending Education Legislation

The only education bill, other than appropriations, close to final passage is the reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act governing federal grants for career and technical education (CTE).

At the end of June, the Senate’s Health Education, Labor and Pension (HELP) Committee approved a bill to reauthorize the Perkins Act. A similar bill passed the House back in June 2017. The White House has indicated its support for the Senate version. No date has been set for a Senate floor vote.

For higher education, the House Committee passed its version to reauthorize the Higher Education Act on December 12, 2017. The PROSPER Act has yet to be given a date for a vote on the House floor. There is optimism that it will occur after the recess.

The Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee—chaired by Lamar Alexander and ranking minority member Patti Murray—is still working on its versions for both pieces of legislation.

One can hope that these bills would be addressed during the waning days of this Congress. But nothing is certain.

Most recently, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colorado) is the first House Republican lawmaker to back a bill to reinstate the Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality rules.

Still up in the air is any legislation addressing immigration and reuniting families.

Pending Changes to Policy and Guidance

The Administration has either proposed or instituted changes to several policies, practices, and guidance that have drawn criticism and controversy. Most of these involve civil rights.

Affirmative Action

At least a dozen top U.S. universities have turned up their noses at the Trump administration's rollback of Obama-era affirmative action directives. The Justice Department announced the rollback of the guidelines as part of the elimination of 24 federal guidance documents, saying they were “unnecessary, outdated, inconsistent with existing law, or otherwise improper.” As a result of this action, A dozen top schools, including five Ivy League institutions, said they plan to continue to use race as a factor in admissions to bolster diversity.

School Discipline and Safety

Secretary DeVos has talked about rescinding the Obama-era guidance that urged schools to limit suspensions and expulsions and end racial disparities in discipline.

The current guidance encourages districts to look at disparate impact—that is, policies that aren’t written in a racially biased way but that result in different outcomes for students of different races. That principle underscores other civil rights protections in housing and other areas.

Secretary DeVos has yet to change the discipline guidance, even as the department has revoked others on racial disparities in special education placement and affirmative action. Conservatives say the discipline guidance is overly prescriptive and makes schools unsafe by keeping disruptive students in class.

This guidance has been further complicated by the establishment of a federal commission on school safety chaired by Secretary DeVos. An unusually broad array of individuals and organizations signed a letter imploring the secretary and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to retain federal guidelines issued by the Obama administration.

Two criticisms since the commission’s inception from numerous educators and youth advocates, among many, is not having any educators as members and for its stance on the issue of guns in schools.

The letter is significant both for its strong defense of students’ civil rights and for its more than 80 signatories, including organizations and individuals who are not always allies on key issues.

In June, DeVos told a Senate subcommittee that the commission will not focus on the role guns play in school violence, which many say was a political decision and ignores one of the greatest threats to school safety.

This battle is not over and most likely will come down to a lawsuit if the department rescinds the discipline guidance.

Delay of a Special Education Rule on Services Due to Racial Disparities

Just after July 4th, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc. (COPAA), that advocates for students with disabilities sued DeVos, alleging that her recent delay issuing regulations for an Obama-era special education rule runs afoul of federal law. The Council said DeVos’ delay violates the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs the regulatory actions of federal agencies.

The lawsuit names Secretary DeVos and Johnny Collett, the assistant secretary in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the Department of Education (DoE). The Obama rule sought to tackle racial disparities in the way states identify students for special education services, among other things.

The lawsuit states the department “had a closed mind, bordering on pre-determination,” about delaying the Obama rule even before it kicked off the notice and public comment process proposing the delay. COPAA also says the DoE failed to provide a “reasoned explanation” for the delay, failed to consider the potential costs to society, and limited the number of public comments it would consider.

Collett said the agency outlined its concerns with the Obama rule when the agency issued a delay notice in June. One of the concerns—the Obama rule prompted states to “establish de facto quotas” and “artificially reduce” the number of children identified for special education services in order to avoid being flagged for problems. When states are flagged for problems, they must use a portion of their federal special education funding to fix them.

Jobs for Students With Disabilities

The Trump administration, which has already shown its willingness to cut red tape, has its eyes on a new target: regulations meant to steer youths and adults with disabilities to jobs where they work alongside people who do not have disabilities.

The regulations come from the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which passed with bipartisan support in 2014. Program responsibility is by the Rehabilitation Services Administration, which is a part of the DoE. The department has taken the first step needed to change the regulations.

There are other rules pending concerning online education and school accreditation, for-profit school accreditation, the student loan collection process, and reimbursement of loan payments by students who attended closed for-profit schools.

National Poll on School Safety

After all of the devastating school shootings this past year, the Annual PDK Education Poll Reveals 1 in 3 parents now fear that their children are in danger on daily basis.

The number of Americans who fear for their child's safety in school has nearly tripled over the past five years, according to a new survey.

The majority of Americans believe their kids are safe at school. The poll found that 34 percent of parents said they feared for their child’s physical safety, while 65 percent said they did not. In 2013, only 12 percent said they were afraid.

Sixty-three percent of parents are opposed to arming teachers and staff to bolster school safety.

PDK International published findings can be found here.

Conclusion

Lots of issues, legislation, and regulations are still unfinished as the 2018 fiscal year comes to an end as well as the 2nd session of the 115th Congress. Controversy seems to involve each of these, which is quite unusual. This is why it is “crunch time.”

Stay tuned for the end of both the fiscal year and the session, what the DoE does, and how the administration responds, especially with mid-terms on the horizon and the results thereof.

As I said in earlier updates… the plate is very full with little time left.

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