Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-IA) released his draft of legislation to update the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education law on Tuesday. The legislation frees states from NCLB’s strict requirement that all children be proficient in reading and math by 2014, a standard which the Department of Education has estimated that 80% of schools would fail. Sen. Harkin’s bill is a combination of Democrat and Republican education priorities, including both the Race to the Top competitive grant program espoused by the Obama administration and the emphasis on charter school expansion and state flexibility in using federal funds which were included in Republican bills to update NCLB. Under the terms of the draft, states would have complete flexibility over how they use federal education funds, with the requirement that they not divert funds from programs for disadvantaged students. The National Education Association has been cautious in its response to the draft, applauding a provision to break down student performance measures by categories including household income and English-language learners, but condemning the teacher-evaluation and turnaround measures for failing schools, which the teacher’s union sees as too prescriptive. A HELP Committee hearing on the draft is scheduled for Oct. 18, and Sen. Harkin said that he hopes to have the bill on the Senate floor for a vote before the Thanksgiving recess. Members of the HELP Committee agreed that they will be hard-pressed to complete work on the bill in the five weeks before the break, given the legislative proposals expected from the deficit Super Committee. Action on the bill from the House is also uncertain.
On Wednesday, the House passed a bill (H.R. 2433) authored by Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chair Jeff Miller (R-FL) to provide job training for unemployed veterans. Under the bill, 100,000 jobless veterans between the ages of 35 and 64 would be eligible to apply for Montgomery GI Bill benefits, including up to a year of training in a high-demand field like healthcare or technology. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), who chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, is advancing her own bill (S. 951) targeting employment opportunities for older veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Sen. Harkin wrote a letter urging the Super Committee to refrain from cutting funding to several key programs, including Pell Grants for college students. “Cutting the maximum award level or reducing student eligibility for Pell Grants could put a college education out of reach for millions of American families while harming the competitiveness of our nation over the long term,” he wrote. He also cited critical job-training programs under the departments of Education and Labor as worthy of preserving because they “provide individuals with opportunities to gain the skills that they need to fill current job openings,” as well as ensuring “that our workers will be able to compete in industries of the future.”
From the New England Council’s Weekly Washington Report Higher Education Update, Oct. 18, 2011. NEBHE is a member of the Council and publishes this column each week.
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