Education a Talker in 109th Congress

Education may have seemed little more than a political footnote during the 2004 election, but major issues — like implementing the No Child Left Behind Act (search) and reauthorizing the massive Higher Education Act (search) — are clearly on the minds of lawmakers and education advocates in 2005.

"I think it will be a busy year," predicted National Education Association (search) spokeswoman Denise Cardinal.

President Bush's next education secretary, Margaret Spellings (search), outlined the president's agenda during her confirmation hearing on Thursday. It calls for additional state testing in high schools, increasing the academic rigor of vocational programs and helping nontraditional students get college aid.

The degree to which the president's proposals — past and future — are received, however, may be better determined by the willingness of states, schools, teachers and the federal government to cooperate.

"They need to make sure that the states – that teachers and practitioners — have a better understanding" of NCLB, said Anne Varghese, director of external affairs for the Center for Education Reform (search). She said the federal government could avoid objections to implementing the provisions of the 2001 bill if it better explained how the law works and how it is funded.

"It comes down to a lot of misinformation out there. It's still such a mess and I think it's time to clarify it," Varghese said.

Outgoing Education Secretary Rod Paige, who was often at odds with the Democratic-leaning NEA, told an audience at the Heritage Foundation in December that the "revolution" spurred by the Bush administration to improve the quality of education is rolling forward with marked successes.

"Today, for the first time, all 50 states have accountability plans in place," he said, referring to the Adequate Yearly Progress (search) reports that the law requires. Schools whose reports fail to meet the standards face penalties.

"[NCLB] preserves local control," he added. "In the interest of federalism, we lit a fire under the states to fulfill their constitutional responsibility and lead — truly lead — on education."

But one of the biggest opponents to NCLB is the NEA, the teachers union that is closely watching implementation of the law. Cardinal said that in 2004, nearly 30 states passed legislation or worked on bills requesting waivers from NCLB compliance and asking Congress to fully fund the program before imposing it.

"It's the most invasive piece of federal education legislation ever in the history of our schools," she said. "It's going to get pressure from the states."

Bush has heralded NCLB as a landmark set of tools for states to raise teaching standards, make funding streams more flexible, clear up bureaucratic red tape and improve performance by students by beefing up reading literacy and requiring regular testing.

On Thursday, Spellings acknowledged that states need federal support to achieve accountability standards outlined in the federal law.

"We must stay true to the sound principles of leaving no child behind, but we in the administration must engage with those closest to children" on sensible enforcement, Spellings said.

NCLB Not the Only Education Issue

Democrats have complained that NCLB has been largely under-funded each year since it was passed in 2001, though the overall federal education budget has increased annually.

In December, the president signed a $59.17 billion education-spending bill for fiscal year 2005, $700 million over 2004. According to Daniel Weiss, chief of staff for Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., ranking member on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, $24 billion is allocated in the spending bill for NCLB programs, short of the $34.3 billion authorized for NCLB in 2005.

"It's a paltry education budget when you consider all of the pledges that were made" by the president and Republican lawmakers, Weiss said.

Other sources at the committee say NCLB will likely take a back seat in 2005 to the Higher Education Act reauthorization — something both Democrats and Republicans have been working on throughout 2004.

"It's a very complicated bill with many avenues," David Schnittger, spokesman for Committee Chairman John Boehner, R-Ohio, said about the Higher Education Act. "This January, it will be one of the top things on our agenda."

After a year of disagreements regarding several aspects of higher-education spending, the House committee was unable to pass a reauthorization bill last year. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held hearings but also did not produce any legislation. Schnittger said Democratic opposition to how they were going to pay for financial aid increases was largely to blame. Little progress has been made on that front, he added.

"We're hoping this will be a bipartisan process," said Schnittger. "Early signals from the Democratic leadership have not been encouraging."

At issue is finding a way to increase the individual Pell Grant (search) payments for low-income students. Unfortunately for advocates, it was the kind of political hot potato that House members didn't want to deal with before the election, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council for Education (search), a trade association representing more than 2,000 colleges and universities.

"I think, ultimately, a lot of members looked at this and said, 'Wait a minute, why pass this in the House right now if the Senate hasn't even looked at it,'" he said. "These are the sort of things that will work out as the legislative process moves forward."

Currently, an estimated 15 million students are in college in the United States and about 8 million of them receive some form of federal aid, most common among them Pell Grants, as well as tax benefits to pay for school or repay loans. The federal government makes available at least $70 billion a year in assistance for higher education aid and other programs. Of this, Congress has appropriated $12.5 billion for Pell Grants. The maximum outlay is $4,050.

Schnittger said his boss wants to take a hard look at which programs are working, and instead of raising taxes or increasing the overall budget, consider "reshuffling the deck and making sure that low income students who are in danger of not getting into college are pushed out to the front of the line," even if that means cutting in other areas.

Democrats have problems with this plan. "Their view is they want to rob Peter to pay Paul and that's inappropriate and does a disservice to students," said Weiss.

Schnittger countered that Democrats have "an aversion to making choices." For them, "it's all about spending money. We feel strongly that there are positive things we can do to expand access to schools for students without adding billions to the deficit."