With the government shutdown averted, what will Congress take up next?
What are the prospects for a Higher Education Act reauthorization this year?
The threat of the federal government shutdown is officially over and this should open the door for a new policy agenda to move forward in 2019!
With today as the deadline for the Congress to reach agreement on the remaining 7 FY 2019 funding bills, they crossed the finish line just in the nick of time. Prompted by President Trump's late and reluctant agreement to sign the final bill, both the House and Senate passed it with overwhelming majorities. The President signed the bill today. Washington seems to have lost its appetite for government shutdowns, at least for now.
On Thursday the Senate passed the bill with an 83-16 vote and the House passed the bill with a 300-128 vote. Both Republican and Democratic leaders characterized the bill as a compromise - with some wins for each party and some losses for each party. Chair of House Appropriations Committee Nita Lowey (D-NY) said "And I don't love everything in this bill. I'm sure that Republicans don't love everything in this bill. But we understand - Democrats and Republicans - that we have a responsibility to fund the government and move on."
The 1100 page compromise bill does not provide the $5 billion in funds for the border wall which was the sticking point in the negotiations and the top priority for the President. In response the President declared a national emergency, which will free up funds to build the wall. The bill assures that Federal employees who were furloughed during the shutdown will receive back pay as well as a 1.9 percent pay raise for 2019. However, retroactive pay for federal contractors is not included.
The Congress will now turn to budget and appropriations for FY 2020. The first step will be the release of the President's budget proposal in mid-March. Congress will also have to tackle the budget caps, which if not amended, will result in a $55 billion cut in non-defense discretionary spending, which includes education.
On the top of the docket for education this year is the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chair of the Senate HELP Committee, this week offered a blueprint for proceeding this year; House Education and Labor Committee Chair Bobby Scott (D-VA) offered a somewhat different vision for proceeding.
Chairman Alexander hopes to pass a bill this spring out of the committee and move it to the Senate floor this summer. "We have a committee with many different voices and diverse views but we have been successful in bringing legislation with broad bipartisan support," he said. "My hope is that we will be able to do that once again with higher education." Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking Democrat on the HELP Committee, said that she is pleased that Sen. Alexander wants to move the Higher Education Act this year.
Sen. Alexander has prioritized simplifying the federal student aid application (FAFSA) and a new income-based repayment plan for borrowers so that no more than 10% of a person's income that is not needed for necessities is required for repayment. Alexander also noted he would like to expand the "gainful employment rule" proposed by the Obama Administration. He referenced several bills that have been introduced which include good ideas, such as expanding competency based education.
Chairman Bobby Scott noted that he is not interested in a "narrow compromise" to reauthorize the higher education, but rather a comprehensive approach to tackle the big issues of college costs and expanding protections for students. Scott noted that "tinkering around the edges would be a disservice" to students and taxpayers. "We need long overdue structural reforms to student aid programs" Scott said noting that incentives were needed for states to boost spending on higher education and allow for tuition-free community college. Scott also noted that increased oversight of "bad actors in the for-profit industry" was needed. He challenged "deregulation just for deregulation's sake." Scott noted there are significant differences in the House between Democrats and Republicans in relation to higher education. These differences are certainly evident in the significant gap between last year's Republican proposal, the PROSPER Act, and the Democrat's proposal, the AIM Higher Act.
The issue of Title IX and sexual assault on campuses will undoubtedly be a sticking point between the two parties as they tackle Higher Education reauthorization.
This week the House Committee on Education and Labor held its first education hearing for the 116th Congress. The topic was "Underpaid Teachers and Crumbling Schools: How Underfunding Public Education Shortchanges America's Students." Witnesses for the Democrats included Randi Weingarten, AFT President; Sharon Contreras, Superintendent of Guilford County NC Schools; and Anna King, Board Member of the National PTA. The witness for the Republicans was Ben Scafidi, Professor of Economics at Kennesaw State University.
Chairman Scott noted that he has introduced the Rebuild America's School Act which would create a $70 billion grant program and a $30 billion tax credit bond program to improve physical and digital infrastructure at high-poverty schools. He said that "In a nation that primarily funds public education using property taxes, the erosion of federal and state support has had a particularly harmful impact on low income school districts, where schools are chronically underfunded, and the needs are greatest... Rather than seeing the urgent need for a robust public education system, some see an opportunity to cut funding and expand the role of private schools and voucher programs... It will take a long-term commitment to public schools in order to see the consistent results we all expect. We must be willing to make that commitment."
Scott further noted that teacher pay has fallen by $30 per week from 1996 to 2015 with public school teachers earning only 77% of what other college graduates with similar work experience earn. In addition teachers spend an average of $485 of their own money every year to purchase classroom supplies.
For more on the hearing see: https://edlabor.house.gov/