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Education Spending Tops Congress’ Fall Agenda

Education Spending Tops Congress’ Fall Agenda
Teacher education, welfare reform are among other hot-button issues to be addressed
By Charles Dervarics After months of disappointing efforts in seeking student-aid increases, education advocates are pinning their hopes on a U.S. Senate plan that will come up for debate in September.

A coalition of senators, mostly Democrats, is seeking approval for $2.2 billion in additional spending for low-income students. If approved, the plan from Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., would raise the maximum Pell Grant from $4,050 to $4,500 next year while adding funds for college awareness and access programs such as TRIO and GEAR UP.

The Bush administration and the House of Representatives already are on record favoring no increase in the maximum Pell Grant next year. “That’s what makes the Kennedy amendment so important,” says David Baime, vice president for federal relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.

An education-spending bill is the first topic on the Senate’s schedule when lawmakers return from their annual summer recess.

The budget debate is reaching its apex just as partisan tensions are running high about the merits of tax cuts and whether they are crowding out funds for domestic programs.

“The president and the Republicans should be honest about what they’re doing,” says Rep. Harold Ford Jr., D-Tenn., a Congressional Black Caucus member. “They’re shortchanging kids to finance a tax cut for a small segment of America.”

But GOP leaders say education funding already has increased substantially during the past five years. Lawmakers already are on record favoring another education budget increase, says Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio. Yet this year’s increases are mostly at the K-12 level.

Education spending is just one item on Congress’ fall agenda, however. Action also is possible on other hot-button issues affecting colleges and the education pipeline. Here is a look at other topics up for consideration:

  • Higher Education Act: Congress may begin the process to renew HEA, the main law that sets policy on financial aid and higher education. Fall fireworks may begin in earnest if Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., introduces a bill to give the federal government a strong role in monitoring college costs.

    The chairman of the House higher education subcommittee, McKeon has questioned the size of recent tuition increases and has said that more federal oversight may help. “We’re spending more than ever on higher education at the federal level,” McKeon said, but getting less to show for the investment.

    One of his ideas is to penalize schools that raise tuition beyond a specific acceptable level. The government would create a “college affordability index,” and those that increase prices beyond that level could face sanctions. Colleges and universities vehemently oppose such a change.

    Another possibility this fall is a House bill to renew and extend college access and awareness programs, Baime said. Programs on this list include TRIO and GEAR UP, which help disadvantaged youth prepare for college.

  • Digital divide: The full House this fall is scheduled to take up a bill with funds to help minority-serving institutions upgrade their technology infrastructure. A similar bill to address the digital divide already passed the Senate unanimously. However, the Bush administration has concerns about the initiative.

    Officials at the National Science Foundation have said they do not want the program at their agency, citing budget constraints and other priorities, while the U.S. Department of Commerce, another possible home, says the program may not be a good match with its mandate. A key issue is how funds would be awarded to colleges, particularly the criteria used to judge successful applicants for funds.

  • Head Start: By a single vote, the House this summer approved wide-ranging changes to the Head Start early childhood program, including giving some states the right to take control of what has been a local program funded with federal dollars. Sponsors say such changes are essential to coordinate Head Start with the pre-kindergarten programs operating in many states. Senate Democrats adamantly oppose these changes, however, and they will hold key votes in a chamber where consensus is encouraged and delaying tactics are common.

    Instead of more state control, the Democratic plan from Sen. Kennedy would emphasize academic improvements and state-level advisory committees to deal with coordination issues. Prominent children’s advocates are aligning themselves with the Kennedy plan. The new plan is a “marked improvement” over the House-passed bill, said Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund.

  • Welfare reform: Almost two years behind schedule, Congress again hopes to complete action on a bill to improve on the 1996 welfare reform law that cut public assistance rolls. But the White House wants to toughen work requirements, while education groups want more options for recipients to pursue adult education, job training and higher education coursework. A new plan in the Senate seeks a middle ground, with only a small increase in required work hours and more emphasis on education. So far, the White House has held out for stiffer increases in work requirements.
  • Teacher education: The Senate may take up a House plan to provide more federal funds for teacher training and education. Among provisions of the House-passed bill is one of major importance to minority-serving institutions. Under this provision, the federal government would set aside $10 million to create teacher education “Centers of Excellence” at Black colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges.
  • Carl D. Perkins Act: The nation’s main technical education law also is up for renewal in Congress, but administration plans to restructure the Carl D. Perkins Act is slowing down the process. At the K-12 level, the White House would focus Perkins more on academic reform instead of technical education, which would be left to the postsecondary level. Perkins includes funds for both K-12 schools, as well as colleges. Critics say Perkins should continue as is, with Congress creating a new program to promote more general reforms at the high school level. That is the intent of a new bill from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who would give states funds to pursue more comprehensive high school reform activities to address dropouts and other issues.

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