Legislative Activity

Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Progresses

Last Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies released its draft FY 2016 spending bill in advance of the Subcommittee’s markup the following day on June 17. This is the first time the House Labor-HHS-Education bill has been made public in three years. The measure provides $153 billion in new discretionary funding for FY 2016, a $3.7 billion decrease from FY 2015 enacted levels. Additionally, it is $14.6 billion below the President’s FY 2016 Budget Request, practically assuring another veto threat. The bill, however, does include a $1.1 billion increase over FY 2015 funding for the National Institutes of Health. The Subcommittee approved the draft bill on June 17, after defeating several amendments by Committee Democrats to increase funding for research, Pell Grants, job training and worker protection programs, and other education programs.

The full House Appropriations Committee plans to mark up the measure this Wednesday. In addition, the Senate Appropriations Education Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies will mark up its version on Tuesday.

Elementary and Secondary Education Act Outlook

The Senate version of its ESEA reauthorization bill, the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, continues to face delays as it awaits a vote on the Senate floor. The legislation is expected to be up for consideration in the days following the July 4 recess. The delay is attributed to the Senate’s current preoccupation with trade legislation, though some groups have hypothesized a general lack of urgency to get it done.

Higher Education Act Reauthorization Hearings

Last Wednesday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing titled “Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act: Evaluating Accreditation’s Role in Ensuring Quality.” The hearing focused on the role of accreditation in higher education, and how to best approach reforming the system as part of the Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization process.

Witnesses agreed that the accreditation system needs greater transparency and must implement standardized and statistical measures. They provided varying opinions, however, on whether the accreditation system should be nationally or regionally structured.

Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) criticized the government regulation and overreach that he believes has a negative impact on many accreditors. He is against using accreditation agencies as “gatekeepers” for Title IV funds, though he acknowledged that he does not see an alternative strategy. Chairman Alexander hopes the HEA reauthorization bill will reduce the number of federal regulations and refocus accreditation agencies’ efforts on quality assessment.

Chairman Alexander also noted that the committee plans to hold another HEA reauthorization hearing after the July 4 recess, with a focus on innovation in higher education. Chairman Alexander and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) still plan on introducing a bipartisan HEA bill by September.

Executive Branch Activity

State Authorization Regulations

On July 1, 2015, the Department of Education’s state authorization regulations will take effect after being on hold since July 1, 2011 to allow institutions of higher education time to prepare. Once the rules become effective, the Department expects institutions to comply or otherwise be at risk of losing their Title IV eligibility. To comply, institutions “must be legally authorized by a State to provide a postsecondary education program, and the State must have a process to review and act upon student complaints about that institution.” Last Friday, the Department sent out a Dear Colleague Letter reminding institutions about the effective date and including information on previous guidance on the new regulations.

In both the House and the Senate, education committee members have introduced bills to repeal the Department of Education’s state authorization rules, which they plan to integrate into a larger Higher Education Act bill (or include it as part of a series of other HEA reauthorization bills). Given the HEA reauthorization timeline in both chambers, however, repealing the rule before it takes effect is not possible.