Congress Returns to a Full Plate With Little Time
Perkins Act, HEA renewal to dominate sessions
By Charles Dervarics
Despite the few days left on the legislative calendar, Congress came back in September for a fall session that has education experts cautiously optimistic about the prospect of action on subjects ranging from technical education to the 2005 budget.
Topping the list is the future of the Carl D. Perkins Act, including the fate of tech-prep education, a favorite of the community college sector that faces one of its toughest challenges this year. The House of Representatives wants to terminate tech-prep as a separate program and fold it into Perkins Act state grants, but education lobbyists and some senators are trying to prevent that.
“Tech prep has been a change agent, and I think Congress recognizes that,” said Dr. David Bond, vice president of CORD, a Texas-based education nonprofit that founded the National Tech Prep Network. Bond said lawmakers should not terminate tech-prep as a stand-alone program because it has much work left to be done.
“There may be a time” to merge the program with state Perkins grants, but that time hasn’t arrived yet, he said. High schools still need help creating career pathway programs, and even the strongest tech-prep efforts could use more business and higher-education partners.
“We would lose some of the program’s momentum,” Bond added. In past years Congress has tried unsuccessfully to fold the program into the main Perkins state grant program. “Congress received so many comments that they abandoned an attempt to approve it,” he said.
Tech-prep receives about $107 million a year, compared with $1.2 billion for Perkins Act state grants. Educators also fear a loss of funding, since the Department of Education, which proposed the merger, would fund the combined program at just $1 billion next year.
Aside from community college groups, many organizations with K-12 members also oppose the funding integration bill, including the Association for Career and Technical Education. These organizations got a boost recently when Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., proposed a Senate Perkins bill that maintains tech-prep’s independence.
“We’ve heard that they plan to move forward with the bill,” said Alisha Hyslop, assistant director of public policy at ACTE. However, an Enzi spokesman said there was no timetable yet for action by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which oversees the program. Coy Knobel, the senator’s spokesman, said the committee may set a date soon.
Should the Senate act on the Enzi bill, that chamber would have to negotiate final details with their counterparts in the House. The two bills in fact share much common ground, including new provisions on accountability and academic rigor. “There are things we like about both bills,” Bond said.
But Perkins is not the only education and job training legislation on Congress’ agenda. Other issues include:
Education funding: With the government’s new fiscal year starting Oct. 1, prospects are dim for quick action by Congress. In July, a House committee voted to freeze the maximum Pell Grant at $4,050, though it would allocate more than $800 million to address program shortfalls caused by high demand for assistance. The bill also provides $20 million more for state grants under the Perkins Act, about a 2 percent increase from current funding. The bill also would increase funding for TRIO and GEAR UP college access programs by $10 million and $20 million, respectively.
The Senate’s education spending panel has yet to schedule a time to consider a new funding bill, though Hyslop said she was hopeful for action within the next month. In past years, when Congress failed to meet the Oct. 1 deadline, lawmakers enacted temporary spending bills to keep federal programs afloat until they agreed on a bill for the remainder of the year.
Workforce Investment Act: With action stalled for nearly a year, few analysts expect Congress to take up the law this late in a session already filled with issues such as the budget and homeland security. “We think Perkins has a much better shot than WIA,” said Hyslop, noting the many House/Senate differences on the workforce bill.
The House last year approved a bill with some Bush administration provisions to create a block grant for work-force investment programs. The bill also would fund one-stop career centers by taking funds from other programs, including the Perkins Act and adult education. By comparison, the Senate-passed bill rejects block grants and would devote about 60 percent of youth funds to those who have left school.
Higher Education Act: The House has divided HEA renewal into several different bills, though none is on the fast track. Key student aid and other programs are in the College Access and Opportunity Act, H.R. 4283, that was the subject of House hearings this summer. So far, however, the American Association of Community Colleges and other groups are critical of some provisions. In a letter to House education leaders, the AACC and the American Council on Education said that while the bill would not increase the maximum Pell Grant, it would impose new regulatory burdens on colleges.
The community college group has called for Congress to double the maximum Pell Grant for needy students over the life of the next HEA renewal.
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