Obama Urges Free Community College, Tripled Child Care Tax Credit, Student Digital Privacy

DC Shuttle …

Education priorities outlined in State of the Union. President Obama addressed several education initiatives in his State of the Union address, stating, “In a 21st century economy that rewards knowledge like never before, we need to up our game.” He touted positive education statistics, including higher graduation rates and test scores, but emphasized that there is still room to improve. In doing so, he outlined the education priorities for his final two years. Obama touched briefly on internet privacy, especially that of children, which tied into the Student Digital Privacy Act he proposed last week. Two of his larger education proposals were tripling the child care tax credit and providing free community college for eligible students.  Obama also outlined alterations to the tax code which would help pay for these initiatives. These changes would fund free community college, simplify and refine higher education tax credits, and extend and increase the New American Opportunity Tax Credit. In the days following Obama’s announcement of a plan to allow responsible students to attend community college for two years at no cost, lawmakers overwhelmingly asked how he planned to pay for the bold proposal, which would cost $60 billion over 10 years. In the State of the Union, the president proposed tax increases on wealthy Americans and large financial firms to help pay for the plan.

Simplifying college financial aid forms. Obama and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle worked to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, which currently has over 100 questions. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) said, “The estimate is that 2 million students that are Pell-eligible in this country don’t receive Pell Grants just because of the complexity of the form.” Obama recently said he was discussing changes to the form with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN). The White House proposed cutting 27 questions from the FAFSA—a less drastic change than proposed by Alexander and Bennet. The two senators, both of whom are on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, introduced the FAST Act, a bill that would cut the FAFSA down to two questions. The bill introduced Jan. 7  is co-sponsored by Senators Richard Burr (R-NC), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), and Angus King (I-ME).

Congress begins work on NCLB reauthorization. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held a hearing on the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, one of President George W. Bush’s signature policies. The committee, led by Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Walsh (D-WA), acknowledged that NCLB had resulted in tremendous progress, especially among disadvantaged students. However, all agreed that, in recent years, NCLB has become unworkable. One area of considerable debate is testing requirements, which mandate annual tests for math and reading in grades 3 through 8, and in high school. Advocates for the testing requirement say it helps track the progress of schools, teachers and students, especially minority and disadvantaged students. Opponents argue that the testing requirement results in schools “teaching to the test” and wasting valuable classroom time on test preparation. The committee heard testimony from a panel of experts and educators, who shared their opinions on the draft legislation that Alexander proposed last week, as well as offered other possible solutions to the testing debate. Several senators on the committee voiced concern that too much time is being spent on testing, especially as many states and school districts require further tests. Other senators were wary of limiting testing, stating it might allow students to be left behind. In advocating for continued testing, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) cited a recent study which found that 51% of public school students live in poverty. He said, “If you want to cure this problem of poverty in our country, the way to do this is by making sure people can read when they’re in first grade.” Testing is also a controversial issue because it can be used to determine accountability for schools and educators. Several witnesses felt that accountability results in teachers and schools focusing disproportionately on tests. Witness Stephen Lazar, a New York public high school teacher, said, “The stakes for my students forced me to value three hours of testing over a year of learning.”

We publish the DC Shuttle each week featuring higher ed news from Washington collected by the New England Council, of which NEBHE is a member. This edition is drawn from the Higher Education Update in the Council’s Weekly Washington Report of Jan. 26, 2015. 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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