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SOUND AND FURY?: With Legislative Days Running Short, House Committees Get Moving on Education Bills

With the U.S. House of Representatives set to adjourn for August recess this week, the chamber saw a flurry of education-related activity last week that could result in significant legislation later this year … or it could signify nothing, with members of Congress choosing to delay any further action until a new Congress—and a new president—is sworn in early next year.

House Committee Passes Bill to Revamp Career and Technical Education

On July 7, the House Education and the Workforce Committee passed bipartisan legislation to rewrite the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act (Perkins), the nation’s largest federal investment in secondary and postsecondary career and technical education (CTE). The bill, the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, would provide states with more flexibility in how they use federal funds, improve alignment between CTE, challenging state academic standards, and in-demand jobs through better partnerships with communities and employers, and promote innovation by replicating promising practices.

“Career and technical education has placed countless individuals on the path to success, and this bipartisan legislation will empower more individuals to follow that same path,” said House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN). “It includes numerous reforms to prepare students for high-demand jobs that exist today, not the jobs that existed years ago.”

U.S. Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA), top Democrat on the Committee, agreed, noting that the bill will “ensure that students, especially historically disadvantaged and underserved students, are prepared for success in high-demand jobs that offer living wages, employer benefits, and opportunities for meaningful career advancement.”

Tight Timeline Working Against CTE Rewrite

With few legislative days left in the 2016 congressional calendar, the prospects of a final bill making its way to the president’s desk appear dim. But as seen with the fast-moving Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) last year, anything is possible when Republicans and Democrats can find common ground on an issue. With a 39–0 vote in favor, the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act certainly has strong bipartisan support—at least at the House committee level. Across the Capitol, key senators, including Senate education committee chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), have expressed a strong interest in rewriting the Perkins Act. Some smaller CTE bills have already been introduced while larger, more comprehensive legislation to rewrite Perkins could be introduced as soon as this week.

Annual Education Spending Bill Also Running Behind Schedule; Short-Term Funding Fix Likely

Also racing against the clock—the start of the new fiscal year is October 1—is work to pass the annual education spending bill. Last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed a spending bill that would fund the U.S. Department of Education at $67.8 billion for Fiscal Year 2017—$500 million less than the previous year. Last week, a House appropriations subcommittee went even further, cutting funding to $67 billion—a $1.3 billion reduction.

While acknowledging that it was not what she would have written, U.S. Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY), top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said the Senate bill “reflects Republican and Democratic compromise on critical issues that I wish we could achieve in the House.” She derided the House bill’s funding cuts and policy changes and said it stood “in stark contrast” to the Senate’s bipartisan bill.

On a positive note, the House bill provides $1 billion to fund the new Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant (SSAEG) program that was created in ESSA. The amount is significantly higher than the $300 million included in the Senate bill, but it is still less than the $1.6 billion that ESSA authorizes for the program.

In the July 7 episode of “Federal Flash,” the Alliance for Excellent Education’s five-minute video series on important developments in education policy, Alliance Senior Policy and Advocacy Associate Rachel Bird Niebling notes that funding for SSAEG is expected to cover everything from access to a well-rounded education, to improving school conditions for student learning, to digital learning.

“If the program receives less than the $1.6 billion authorized for it, the funding will be spread more thinly across many priorities,” she notes, “and if districts received less than $30,000 to implement the program, they do not have to adhere to the priorities of the program.”

The full House Appropriations Committee is expected to vote on the subcommittee-passed bill this week, but the bill may not go much farther. Already, some of the House’s most conservative members are pushing for a six-month continuing resolution (CR) that would delay any funding decisions until March 2017, well after a new Congress and a new president takes office. While a six-month CR may not happen—House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) is one person against such an approach—a series of shorter CRs that could extend funding decisions until after the election is certainly possible.

Because a CR would reflect funding decisions made prior to ESSA’s passage, it is unclear how funding would be allocated for the new or consolidated programs created under ESSA.

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