Slow FY18 Budget Progress, Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act Starts in Earnest

Congress continues to work on several pieces of legislation that need to be in place before it moves on to finalize the FY 2018 federal budget, which is now three months overdue. Meanwhile it looks like another Continuing Resolution will be passed to take us into the new year. There’s no real impact on the school market for now. Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER), the House’s re-authorization of the Higher Education Act, has passed out of the education committee and will be taken up by the full House of Representatives sometime in 2018.

Work continues in Washington to each a series of agreements that will clear the way to pass the FY 2018 budget. The Continuing Resolution that got the country past the original July 1 deadline was set to expire on December 8. Congress passed a short-term CR, extending the deadline to December 22. It’s hard to imagine that in the week that is left Congress will be able to reach an agreement about FY18 spending levels, especially with passing the new tax plan still the top priority. Some legislators also want to see DACA resolved before the end of the year, though they are probably not willing to cause a government shutdown to achieve that goal. That means Congress will pass yet another short-term CR that will take us into sometime in January. By then Congress may be ready to act.

With respect to spending levels, several outlets are reporting that a deal is in the works to repeal the sequester and increase discretionary spending by $230 billion over the next two years. It’s not clear how that increase will be offset, if at all. Democrats have argued for parity in the way increases are allocated – with dollar-for-dollar increases for defense and nondefense. Republicans are not on board with that. The latest offer is rumored to be a $63 billion increase each of the next two years for defense, and $52 billion increases for the next two years for non-defense. The Democrats originally wanted a $54 billion increase for both defense and nondefense spending.

There’s no question that there is a need for an increase to non-defense spending. There’s just not enough money to fund continuing programs much less expanding initiatives or creating new pilots, much less full-blown programs. The Title IV-A block grant program in ESSA (where any innovative ideas could be incubated) will never reach its annual $1.6 billion authorization without an increase in available funds. But without a plan to offset the cost of any increases, the budget deficit gets worse, reaching almost $1.2 trillion over ten years. That no longer seems to concern most Republicans, but any deal that increases the deficit will meet strong opposition from the most conservative faction of the Republican party. This all begins to sound like the Neverending Story. We’ll see what the new year brings.

On Tuesday, following a marathon markup session, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce passed the higher education reauthorization bill – the PROSPER Act – out of committee on a 23-17 party-line vote. The bill will be scheduled for consideration by the full House sometime in 2018, raising the issue of what the rush was all about. That’s certainly something the Democrats on the committee wanted to know.  A coalition of organizations representing higher ed also objected to the timeline and lack of meaningful debate.  Rep.  Virginia Foxx (R-NC), who chairs the committee, introduced the 542-page bill, which was drafted without any Democratic input, on December 1.

There’s a lot in this bill, much of it dealing with student aid, Pell grants and repayment programs. A few things relate more directly to K-12. The bill repeals the original Title II of the Higher Education Act, which was focused on teacher preparation programs, replacing it with a new Title II focused on expanding access to in-demand apprenticeships. Gone is the $41.3 million Teacher Quality Partnership program which provided competitive funding to model teacher residency programs and to partnerships between schools of education at institutions of higher education and high-need school districts. Also eliminated is the requirement for the creation and publication of state- and institution-level report cards on programs that prepare teachers.

The bill ends several loan forgiveness programs, which allows teachers and others in low-paying government jobs to have their student-loan debt forgiven under certain circumstances, as well as the TEACH program grants to students who agreed to teach subjects like math and science in high-needs schools for a certain number of years.

As concerns continue to mount about K-12 teacher shortages in critical areas – computer science, math, physics and chemistry to name a few – it seems counterproductive to take away an incentive that might encourage some students to consider teaching if even for just a brief time. And eliminating a program aimed at improving teacher preparation at the same time that there is a proposal on the table to eliminate K-12 professional development funding via the 2018 budget is not a great idea either. Shifting the focus of Title II did not seem to be much of a problem within the House Committee. We’ll have to see what the Senate bill, which has not yet been introduced, looks like. Senator Lamar Alexander, who leads the Senate education committee, may well have a different view.

TRIO Program

PROSPER makes several interesting changes to the TRIO program, which provides counseling and other support services to low-income and disadvantaged high school and college students. The bill not only eliminates the existing ban on conducting randomized control trials in the TRIO programs, but now requires the Department of Education to rigorously evaluate them. It also creates a new “impact grant” program within TRIO, using the evidence-based definition agreed to in the Every Student Succeeds Act, to develop and implement evidence-based proposals. It’s interesting to see a K-12 initiative impact anything in higher ed, but evidence has become one of the new legislative buzz words. I wish Congress itself would make more of an effort to consider whether there is any evidence to support their actions.