DC Shuttle: Credit Hours and Online Programs

On Tuesday, the House voted 303 to 114 to pass legislation (H.R. 2117) repealing two recent Education Department regulations, with 69 Democrats voting for the bill. As part of its program integrity proposal, the Education Department included a definition of a credit hour for the purposes of distributing federal student financial aid. The bill would rescind that definition and prevent the department from taking future steps to further define a credit hour, on the basis that the definition of a credit hour falls within the purview of accrediting agencies. Also included were rules expanding on the requirement that colleges be authorized in states where they operate to include a broader definition of college operations which would largely affect online programs. Congresswoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC), who sponsored the bill, argued that online programs would now have to go through extensive authorization processes to meet varying requirements in each of the 50 states, and might decide to stop serving students from rural states due to the disproportionate cost burden. House Education and Workforce Committee Chair John Kline (R-MN) applauded the legislation for protecting “academic institutions and prospective students from significant financial and bureaucratic burdens.” Committee Ranking Member George Miller (D-CA) decried the bill, noting that the new credit hour definition was created in response to a report from the Office of the Inspector General, which found that some institutions of higher education were artificially inflating the credit hour value of courses in order to receive more federal student aid. The legislation will face long odds in the Senate, and the White House released a Statement of Administration Policy on Thursday saying that the regulations which would be reversed under the bill are necessary to prevent inappropriate distribution of federal student aid. The SAP stopped short of a veto threat, but still strongly condemned the bill.

Also on Tuesday, two bills addressing pieces of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education law advanced strictly along party lines in the House Education and Workforce Committee. Committee Chair Kline introduced the bills in January after announcing in December that an attempt at bipartisan legislation to replace NCLB had failed, and the Republicans would move ahead with their own proposals. One bill (H.R. 3989) would free states from NCLB’s widely criticized annual yearly progress (AYP) requirements and allow state to replace the Education Department’s turnaround strategies for underperforming schools with their own strategies. The legislation would also free up several funding streams aimed at specific goals like low-income schools or English language learners and allow states to use them as they see fit. Federal requirements that states assess science learning and adopt “college- or career-ready” graduation standards would also be stripped. The other bill (H.R. 3990) would require states to adopt teacher-evaluation systems based in part on student achievement and combine teacher-training programs into one block grant which states could use for various teacher initiatives. The bill would also eliminate more than 70 education programs and expand support for charter schools.

Twenty-six states—including Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont—have joined those seeking waivers from NCLB’s requirements from the Education Department. The law requires that 100% of students meet proficiency standards in reading and writing by 2014 in order for states to continue to receive federal education funding. Eleven other states including Massachusetts applied for the first round of NCLB waivers, all of which were approved. States applying for waivers must commit to certain administration-supported education reforms like setting college- and career-readiness standards and factoring student achievement into teacher evaluations in exchange for lifting the NCLB requirements. The Education Department said that it plans to make a final decision on the latest waiver requests this spring. States have until Sept. 6 to file for an NCLB waiver.

As a member of New England Council, we publish the DC Shuttle each week featuring higher ed news from Washington. This edition is drawn from the Council’s Weekly Washington Report Higher Education Update, of March 5, 2012.

Founded in 1925, the New England Council is a nonpartisan alliance of businesses, academic and health institutions, and public and private organizations throughout New England formed to promote economic growth and a high quality of life in the New England region. The Council’s mission is to identify and support federal public policies and articulate the voice of its membership regionally and nationally on important issues facing New England. For more information, please visit: www.newenglandcouncil.com.


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