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Congressional Priorities for Rewriting the Higher Education Act

Federal Flash examines how Republicans and Democrats differ in their priorities for rewriting the Higher Education Act. It also covers two new proposals related to education funding and new guidance on the Every Student Succeeds Act from the U.S. Department of Education.

Trying Again on School Choice Proposals

From day one of her tenure at the Department of Education, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has had one primary goal: increase school choice for the nation’s students. The Administration’s proposals have gone nowhere on Capitol Hill, so they are trying again. This time, they are proposing Education Freedom Scholarships that would be funded through taxpayers’ voluntary contributions. People would donate money and receive a dollar‐for‐dollar federal tax credit. That money would then go to families as Education Freedom Scholarships to pay for a number of education options, ranging from apprenticeships to private schools.

The proposal is unlikely to go anywhere on Capitol Hill. Legislation is in the works in both the House and the Senate, but with Democrats in control of the House and 60 votes needed to pass a bill in the Senate, the legislation will likely follow in the footsteps of the Administration’s other school choice proposals.

Funding for School Infrastructure

In a similar vein, House Democrats passed a bill in Committee that would provide $100 billion to enhance school infrastructure. It’s a top priority for House Education Committee Chairman Bobby Scott and was the first education bill passed by the Committee. But it received exactly zero votes from Committee Republicans. So, while it might pass the full House, it too will go nowhere in the Senate.

New ESSA Guidance from the Department of Education

Our next item is a policy that could actually move, but that may not be a good thing. You may recall that the Department released draft guidance related to the policy known as Supplement not Supplant. This is a requirement in ESSA to ensure Federal Title I funds do not replace money that a school should be receiving from state and local sources. The idea is that federal money should be on top of local dollars, not in place of them.

A group of equity-focused organizations, including us here at All4Ed, sent Secretary DeVos a letter with concerns regarding her guidance, saying that the guidance allows too much flexibility and that, “without further clarity… federal Title I dollars may not be used as intended under ESSA, and low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, English language learners and other marginalized groups will be deprived of the supports and services they need and deserve.” The department’s guidance is not yet final – we’ll keep you posted.

Setting Priorities for the Higher Education Act

Our final story for the day is on higher education. Last week, Senator Patty Murray, the leading democrat on the Senate education committee, outlined her priorities for the rewrite of the Higher Education Act, or HEA. Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander outlined his priorities earlier in February. While there are some areas of consensus, there are several difficult issues to work out.

Chairman Alexander’s priority is simplification. He wants to simplify the Free Application for Student Financial Aid, known as the FASFA, from 108 questions to about 24. He also wants to simplify the process for paying back student loans and have an accountability system to “make sure that the degrees [colleges] offer are worth students’ time and money.”

Senator Murray agrees that we need to simplify FASFA and simplify loan repayment, but she also wants HEA to include “a state-federal partnership to promote new investments in our students and families.”  Senator Murray also believes we need accountability in higher education, and she is particularly concerned about predatory practices of for-profit colleges. Another priority of hers is “to address the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses across the country.”

Read the priorities for both Chairman Alexander and Senator Murray.

HEA negotiations are underway but it’s still early in the process. We’ll keep you posted as things progress.

This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the March 4 episode of Federal Flash, All4Ed’s five-minute (or less!) video series on important developments in education policy in Washington, DC. For an alert when the next episode of Federal Flash is available, email at