Legislative Activity

ESEA Reauthorization Bills to be Considered Soon

House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) plan to make the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization their first priority in the 114th Congress. Last week, Chairman Alexander announced his intent to move a bill through the Senate HELP Committee and to the Senate floor by late February. He may introduce a bill or a framework of his legislation as early as this week. Chairman Kline also indicated that he plans to move on a similar timeline to ensure the two ESEA reauthorization bills move “on parallel tracks” but noted that the House version of the bill will likely be on the floor before the end of March. Both chairmen also are meeting with their counterparts – Senate HELP Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) and House Education and the Workforce Committee Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-VA) – to discuss their priorities for ESEA and attempt to draft bipartisan legislation that has a chance of being signed into law by the President.

It is expected that both committees will hold a number of hearings on ESEA reauthorization in the coming weeks. The first Senate HELP Committee hearing on the topic will be on Tuesday, January 20 and will focus on the annual testing requirements in ESEA.

Today, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will deliver a speech at a Washington, DC elementary school about the need to “repeal and replace” No Child Left Behind, which was the last iteration of ESEA and expired in 2007. Secretary Duncan is expected to outline his priorities for ESEA reauthorization in this speech and some of these priorities are likely to be at odds with the Republicans’ vision for reauthorization.

Congress Will Tackle Other Education Priorities in the 114th Congress

After Congress finishes ESEA reauthorization, committee leaders and staff have indicated that the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) will be the next priority for the 114th Congress. We expect that reforming and simplifying the current student financial aid system will likely be a key topic of discussion in HEA reauthorization. Chairman Alexander has made it one of his signature issues and re-introduced the Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency (FAST) Act this week with Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO). The bill was previously introduced in the 113th Congress and would simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to only require answers to two questions – what is your family size and what was your household income two years ago? Senator Alexander is likely to push to include this legislation in HEA reauthorization. President Obama has endorsed the legislation and called upon Congress to pass it.

It is also expected that student data privacy legislation will be considered in the 114th Congress, but it is unclear whether these efforts will be combined with ESEA reauthorization or if they will move separately. Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) will again take the lead on this issue to follow up on legislation he introduced in the 113th Congress with Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), which would update the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

Regulatory Activity

President Obama Announces a New Proposal for Community Colleges

On Friday, President Obama unveiled the America’s College Promise proposal to make two years of community college free for “responsible students.” The proposal would build on the President’s efforts to date concerning college affordability and quality and would include two major components: (1) provision of two years of free community college and (2) creation of a fund to expand technical training. Under the proposal, the federal government would provide 75 percent of the average cost of community college and also would create a new American Technical Training Fund to expand innovative, high-quality technical training programs.

While Democratic leaders on the House and Senate education committees immediately welcomed the proposal and committed to making it a reality, Congressional Republican leaders on those committees dismissed the role of the federal government here. Instead, Chairman Alexander urged states to take the lead on such efforts while the federal government worked to reduce paperwork related to student loan applications. Additionally, Chairman Kline criticized the President for proposing another expensive federal program that will compete with already existing underfunded programs.

Therefore, while we are likely to see Democratic proposals to attach authorization or funding to the program in Congress, it is unlikely such efforts will be successful in a Republican-controlled Congress. Because Senator Murray is the Ranking Member on both the Senate HELP Committee and the education subcommittee for appropriations, it is possible she may negotiate some funding into the FY 2016 funding bill. As we have seen the Administration do with other high-priority federal initiatives, officials may look to use existing funds to jumpstart such an initiative, although that path forward is currently unclear.

Department Invites Schools to Participate in the Experimental Sites Initiative

Last week, the Department of Education began inviting schools to participate in its Experimental Sites Initiative. Schools originally submitted a letter of intent in the summer to be selected as part of the four experimental site areas. These four focus areas for the sites seek to allow for more regulatory flexibility for institutions to design and test new approaches that will:

  • Enable students to earn federal student aid based on how much they learn, rather than the amount of time they spend in class by providing federal aid to students enrolled in self-paced competency-based education programs.
  • Provide flexibility for an institution to provide a mix of direct assessment coursework and credit hour coursework in the same program.
  • Allow the use of federal student aid to pay for prior learning assessments, which can allow students—including returning adults or veterans—to decrease their time to get a degree.
  • Encourage college students to mentor high school students in the areas of college readiness, student aid, career counseling and financial literacy, through the use of federal work study funds.

Southern New Hampshire University announced that the school was invited to participate in two of the experimental sites related to competency-based learning and providing a mix of direct assessment and credit hour coursework. The Department has not yet released the full list of experimental site participants.