Tax reform and education spending: are we headed for a meltdown?
What will the new House Higher Education Reauthorization bill mean for financial aid?
As promised, this week was a roller coaster in Congress. With the tax reform bill thumping toward Senate passage, the spending and budget stalemate threatening a government shutdown and the Higher Education Act reauthorization process underway, education advocates are busy indeed.
This week the Senate Budget Committee adopted, on a 12-11 partisan vote, the Tax Cuts and Job Act (TCJA) - the tax reform bill. At this writing, the bill is being debated on the the Senate floor and final passage could come today. A strategy offered by Republicans who are concerned about exploding the debt with this bill - which would trigger an automatic slow down in tax cuts if economic growth assumed by the bill does not occur - was rejected by the Senate parliamentarian last night. Some Republicans who are concerned about the exploding deficit, such as Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), are calling time out. But the speeding train seems to be rolling fast.
If the bill goes through it will require program cuts to be made - on the chopping block will be Medicare, Medicaid, IDEA and others. There are multiple provisions in both the House and Senate bills would mean cuts for education. Higher education could lose deductions for student loan interest, experience new taxes on graduate tuition benefits and some endowments and experience shrinkage in charitable deductions because of loss of tax provisions. The elimination of the SALT provisions could significantly lower funding states and locals have available for public education across the board.
At a hearing in the House yesterday, the highly respected director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, issued a cautionary warning about the bill, noting that anything that diminishes the talent of the next generation joining the workforce is concerning. Margaret Spellings, former Sec. of Education under George W. Bush and current president of the University of North Carolina system said that the tax bill would be a "self-inflicted setback in the national effort to build a more competitive, better educated citizenry." Sec. of Education Betsy DeVos said she is encouraged by GOP efforts to fix the nation's broken tax system.
When and if the Senate passes the tax bill they will head to conference with the House where they will need to compromise on differing provisions to finalize a bill for the President's signature. Education advocates across the board will continue to oppose the many provisions in the bill which will harm education and set the table for deep cuts in the future.
December 8 marks the end of the Continuing Resolution - the temporary funding bill passed because Congress was unable to come to a one year spending agreement by Sept. 30. Congress must act by Dec. 8 in order to avoid a government shutdown and keep funding for all federal agencies flowing. Two of the key complicating factors are: 1) budget caps in place for defense and non-defense spending must be raised in order for the funding bills currently on the table to be adopted and 2) Democrats are insisting on addressing DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) by enacting some version of the DREAM Act as part of the deal. Any funding bills must pick up at least 8 Democrats in the Senate in order to pass; so the stakes are high and each side is calculating its leverage daily.
The current strategy seems to be to pass yet another short term continuing resolution that runs through December 22 and use those two weeks before the holidays to come to agreement on new spending caps for defense and non-defense spending. Then another short term continuing resolution would be passed through January or February giving appropriations committees time to finalize their bills and adjust them to be in line with the new budget caps. At any rate, what is on the table is a possible government shutdown if compromises cannot be secured.
Over 80 education and related organizations sent a letter to the Hill this week urging an agreement on new budget caps which would ensure that education spending receives its fair share.
Letter urging new budget caps: https://secure.aacte.org/
The Senate HELP Committee will hold a confirmation hearing on Dec. 5 for two important nominees at the Department of Education; Kenneth Marcus of Leesburg, VA is nominated to be Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights and Johnny Collett of Georgetown, KY is nominated to be Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. The hearing will be live-streamed.
In addition, the White House announced the intention to nominate Mark Schneider to serve as director of the Institute of Education Sciences. Schneider is currently vice president and fellow at the American Institutes for Research and served as commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics under President George W. Bush.
Watch hearing live Dec. 5 at 10 AM: https://www.help.senate.gov/
More on Kenneth Marcus: https://www.insidehighered.com/
More on Johnny Collett: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/speced/
In 2014, the Obama Administration adopted guidelines intended to address the systemic problem of low-income, minority students and students with disabilities facing disparate treatment in terms of discipline - in particular out-of-school suspension and expulsion. Last week Sec. DeVos met with a group of teachers and parents who made the case that such policies can keep dangerous children in school and cause a disruptive school environment. Sec. DeVos has indicated that she is looking closely at this guidance.
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), lead Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, noted that school discipline policy must consider the deeply rooted inequities, including pervasive racial bias that disproportionately harm students of color and contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.
Several education and civil rights organizations have coalesced to support the continuation of the school discipline guidance, organizing an "In Class, Not Cuffs" campaign. On December 8 at 9 am the US Commission on Civil Rights will hold a hearing in Washington on equity and discipline policies. Speakers have not yet been announced. The inequitable impact of student discipline policies on students with disabilities will be a focus.
US Commission on Civil Rights: http://www.usccr.gov/
For "In Class, Not Cuffs" see: http://mobilize4change.org/
Lost in the cavalcade of policy action this week was the 42nd Anniversary of IDEA on Nov. 29. There were no big events or statements from the White House as there have been in the past, though Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) did issue a statement. Stopping to take stock of how far we have come is hard to do in these challenging times. But maybe it can help us gain some equilibrium. Forty two years of zero reject and full participation of students with disabilities in public education remains something to celebrate. Just for a moment, let's focus on our progress.
Okay, that's over. Back to work.
Have a great weekend. See you on twitter @janewestdc