Slowly Moving In the Right Direction, But One Step At A Time

As the 2014 mid-term elections get closer, members of Congress have found at least one issue where they have come to an agreement that is both bipartisan and bicameral. After months of negotiations, leaders from the House and Senate introduced the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). The current statute was last written in 1998, and has been overdue for reauthorization for more than 10 years. To many observers and those involved in workforce policy, this was totally unexpected and may provide a wakeup call to Congress that other policy areas can also find a middle ground.

However, the general level of interest to cooperate is best described this way. "It's clear the Republicans do not want to do anything with Obama — nothing," said Ray LaHood, the Republican former congressman from Illinois who served as the president's transportation secretary in his first term. He told the New York Times, "Nobody wants to cast tough votes. Everybody wants to get through these elections and then see what happens." Other areas to be discussed in this piece include the "food fight" between the First Lady and House Republicans; new House education bills; push for greener post-secondary institutions, and higher education student financial aid.

Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act

The 800-plus-page jobs bill offered by a bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, would rewrite workforce education for the first time in 16 years.

The bill to be considered by both the House and Senate intends to modernize and improve existing federal workforce development programs, help workers attain skills for 21st century jobs and foster the modern workforce that evolving American businesses rely on to compete.

WIOA represents a compromise between the SKILLS Act (H.R. 803), which passed the House of Representatives in March 2013 with bipartisan support, and the Workforce Investment Act of 2013 (S. 1356), which passed through the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee with a bipartisan vote of 18-3 in July of 2013.

According to the Center for Law and Social Policy (www.clasp.org), WIOA improves current workforce and adult education programs in many ways, and creates the conditions for wider adoption of career pathways and other strategies that hold promise for raising the skills and improving economic prospects for low-income adults and youth. Among the improvements in the proposed bill are:

  1. Increased focus on comprehensive programming for youth without a secondary school credential and those who face the greatest challenges;
  2. Wider range of services, including transitional jobs, for low-skill, low-income adults and individuals with barriers to employment;
  3. Strong performance accountability provisions that reduce disincentives to serving participants who need considerable assistance; and
  4. Support for integrated education and training and concurrent approaches to adult education that allow for increased transitions to and success in postsecondary education.

This bill has support across the board and most likely be one of the first pieces of legislation to go through both houses with the support of both parties prior to the November mid-term elections.

The one other piece of legislation that has bipartisan support is aimed at increasing veterans' access to healthcare and holding accountable bad actors in the Department of Veterans Affairs. The legislation passed 93-3 and represents rare cooperation between the House and Senate, raising hopes that Congress is moving swiftly toward a VA reform compromise to send to the president's desk. The Senate legislation largely mirrors similar proposals from the House, and lawmakers and aides do not expect a knock down political fight as the two chambers iron out their differences.

A National Food Fight

First Lady Michelle Obama has as one of her primary campaigns the fight against obesity in children. This includes adding more exercise to a child's life and changing their diet. Ms. Obama has focused on improving the quality and variety of food offered in school lunches. The Department of Agriculture has put forth guidelines as a result of legislation on what should be included in and excluded from school lunches, especially the meals and foods subsidized by the department. Schools began to implement the improvements by changing the offerings and the menus to become healthier. The legislation that created the need for nutrition and school meal standards is the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, sponsored and introduced by Representative George Miller (D- Calif.).

Complaints have surfaced from schools and school cafeterias. They claim the switch has been difficult to make, more costly and increased the amount of food waste. Even though 90 percent of schools are complying with the new rules, there are some districts, organizations and politicians who are vocally opposed to them. This includes some members of Congress. The House Appropriations Committee passed, at the end of May 2014, as part of the Agriculture spending bill, an opportunity for schools to opt out of the new food nutrition standards for healthy school meals.

For instance, the bill makes white potatoes eligible for purchase under the Women Infants and Children (WIC) program, despite the fact that white potatoes are already consumed in substantial quantities by WIC recipients and have weak nutritional value. With this vote and the complaints along with the First Lady's strong stance on nutrition, healthy meals and healthy foods for children has for all intensive purposes become a "Food Fight."

Congressman Miller, sponsor of the 2010 legislation stated, "With today's vote, Republicans on the Appropriations Committee have reneged on our responsibility to children all across the country and to the millions of families who rely on federal child nutrition programs as a nutritional safety net. It's a shame that the GOP has kowtowed to industry-funded lobbyists to roll back vital nutrition standards for kids so that wealthy special interests can capture more federal tax dollars. Today's vote puts those special interests above our children's health and well-being. But it's not the last vote, and there maybe changes in the final bill."

Few will disagree that students need healthy meals and adequate nutrition to achieve their potential in the classroom. The National School Boards Association has stated most recently that its members "are committed to ensuring all students are prepared to learn. However, school boards cannot ignore the higher costs and operational issues created by mandates in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (PL 111-296). Therefore, NSBA supports two important measures in the legislation that the Committee considered:
* NSBA supports the appropriation of $25 million for school meal equipment grants, which will help schools prepare and serve healthier meals, and improve food safety.
* NSBA also supports a provision requiring the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a process by which a state shall grant a temporary waiver from compliance with national nutrition standards."

Once the House addresses the appropriations bill, then the Senate will take it up. It is doubtful this battle will end soon.

Other Education Legislation and Issues of Interest

A School Choice Bill
Representative Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on K-12 and early childhood education, introduced a companion bill in late May to Senator Tim Scott's (R-S.C.) three-part voucher bill, called the CHOICE Act. The bill would encourage states to create and expand voucher programs for IDEA funds that go to children with disabilities. It would also expand the voucher program in the District of Columbia, and create a pilot voucher program for children in military families who attend schools located on our domestic military bases. Scott's bill has been sitting in the Senate since January. A one-page fact sheet on the bill can be read at: politico.pro/1tPIYm3.

Protecting Student Athletes
Democratic Representative George Miller (D-Calif.), who serves as the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, is a leading co-sponsor of Representative Tim Bishop's (D-N.Y.) Protecting Student Athletes From Concussions Act of 2013 (H.R. 3532), which would establish minimum standards in K-12 schools on concussion safety and management, including educating students, parents and school personnel about how to recognize and respond to concussions. He authored the original version of the legislation, introduced in both the 111th and 112th Congresses.

Green Efforts in Postsecondary Institutions
More than 680 higher education institutions have joined the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on their campuses. Many are already getting to work. In May, Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, launched a campus-wide retrofit aimed at cutting the carbon footprint in half — and saving about $220,000 a year in energy bills. The project is organized by Honeywell Building Solutions. To keep the momentum going, college presidents plan to gather for a summit in Boston this fall.

Postsecondary Sustainability Award Program
U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) has introduced a new Postsecondary Sustainability Award for the 2014-2015 cycle. (www2.ed.gov/programs/green-ribbon-schools/eligibility.html) In addition to a total of five school and district nominees, each state may nominate one postsecondary institution for exemplary achievement in all three pillars. For this award, state selection committees are particularly encouraged to document how the nominees' sustainability work has reduced college costs, increased completion rates, led to employment and ensured robust civic skills among graduates; and to make an effort to consider diverse types of institutions. Interested colleges and universities should contact their state higher education authorities for information on how to apply in their states.

Like the PK-12 awards, this category is entirely voluntary. Hearing from interested colleges and universities may be helpful to state authorities considering 2014-2015 participation. State higher education authorities should contact U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools for more information. They can find updated criteria and other state implementation guidance on our website. All state authorities are encouraged to indicate their intent to nominate in 2015 by Aug. 1, 2014. 

Competitions vary by state, but most states will be posting their applications in the fall with deadlines to submit to them in the winter. State authorities' school, district and postsecondary nominations are due to ED by Feb. 1, 2015. Interested PK-12 schools and districts should continue to contact their state education agencies about the school and district award applications.

E-Rate Support
 A bipartisan group of nearly 50 lawmakers sent a letter to FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler and the rest of the commission later today that prescribes several fixes to the E-Rate program. "Technology has dramatically changed since the E-rate program was established 18 years ago, and the funding priorities must reflect the changing nature of the Internet, so that our classrooms and students have access to today's technology," write members of the New Democrat Coalition and several Republicans. Among their proposals: Focus the program on broadband services. Ensure that schools and libraries are paying for the best services at the lowest price. Increase transparency and accountability for the program. Simplify the application process. Ensure that program rules result in stability. The FCC is expected take up much-anticipated consideration of the program in the coming months and issue new rules in time for the new school year. To view the letter, visit politico.pro/1m3QrYG.

However, several key groups are now irate over what they are hearing about what is or is not included in Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler e-rate proposal. He is expected to circulate it for modernizing the E-Rate program among fellow FCC commissioners the week of June 16. But the very groups the program aims to assist are having "grave concerns." They haven't seen the proposal. In meetings with FCC staff and others familiar with Wheeler's plans, the groups are learning that the proposal will be the exact opposite of what many E-Rate beneficiaries have hoped including not providing a permanent boost in funding; a possible per-pupil funding model might put some schools at a disadvantage; and it doesn't include incentives for telecom companies to help connect schools that need it most. Many beneficiaries think a revamp of the program could undo its success thus far.

Mary Kusler, government relations director of the National Education Association, said the commission has historically listened to schools and libraries when it comes to the E-Rate program, "but this is the first time that we feel like decisions are being made by people who aren't listening," she said.

Student Financial Aid
This is one issue that has many moving parts. The most recent attempt to address the increasing level of student loan debt has been by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in a bill that would allow 25 million borrowers to refinance student loans at lower interest rates. The government would finance the measure by imposing a new tax on wealthy people.

The Senate has voted currently not to move forward with the bill. Democrats have stated they will reintroduce the legislation later in the second session of the 113th Congress. Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell stated the department continues to explore ways to refinance or repackage student debt.

On June 9, President Obama signed an executive order that lessens the college loan burden on nearly five million younger Americans by capping repayments at 10 percent of the borrowers' monthly income.

In conclusion

The Ray LaHood quote helped begin this piece best characterizes how little will be accomplished between now and the mid-term elections in November. It is possible depending on those results that a flurry of legislative activity will occur during November and December. But don't bet your house on it. Remember, no one is ignoring what happened to Eric Cantor in his primary and many are well aware it could happen to them in a general election.

 

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