Category Archives: Congress

Federal Update: Trump budget proposal, new ESSA guidelines for state plans

President Donald Trump released his 2018 federal budget proposal today, which would cut funding for the U.S. Department of Education (ED) by $9 billion and invest significant dollars into vouchers, charter school expansion, and portability funding. The budget proposal comes a week after Congress voted to scrap Obama-era Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) accountability rules and days after ED released its new guidance for states to use while designing their ESSA plans.

President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal

The President’s budget blueprint proposes to cut funding for ED by 13%, reducing its budget from the current level of $68 billion to $59 billion. Cuts to those programs come in various areas affecting both K-12 and higher education funding. Congress will consider the proposal as they negotiate the budget they are tasked with writing.

Dollar banknotes heapThe budget proposal entirely cuts a program aimed at recruiting, supporting, and training educators. That program, which primarily focuses on educators in high-needs schools, totals $2.4 billion. The 1st Century Community Learning Centers program that totals $1.2 billion and provides funding for before-school, after-school, and summer enrichment programs would also be gutted. Other programs seeing significant cuts would include Federal Work-Study, TRIO, and GEAR UP (the latter two both support disadvantaged students in becoming college ready).

“The 2018 Budget places power in the hands of parents and families to choose schools that are best for their children by investing an additional $1.4 billion in school choice programs,” opening lines of the ED section of the blueprint read.

In the case of President Trump’s budget, school choice means charter school expansion, portability funding, and vouchers, and, although no specifics are offered, the $1.4 billion dedicated in 2018 would ramp up to an annual total of $20 billion (a number then candidate Trump touted on the campaign trail) over the course of an unspecified time. The budget also estimates that funding for these projects will hit $100 billion when state and local matching funds are included. Trump campaigned on a plan that would “favor” states with private school choice and charter laws.

Specifically, President Trump’s proposal provides a $168 million increase in funding for charter schools, $250 million that would go toward a new (but undefined) private school choice program, and a $1 billion increase to Title I funding that would all be dedicated to portability within public schools, a term commonly used to refer to the idea of Title I money following the child to the school of their choice (rather than focusing the money on schools with the most need). ATPE wrote a letter to members of Congress in 2015 that touched on portability funding. Title I portability was being considered at the time but didn’t pass.

One thing the budget outlined by the White House doesn’t touch is funding for educating students with disabilities. While the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) remains vastly underfunded, President Trump’s budget maintains its funding level at around $13 billion. IDEA was passed by Congress with the promise to give states 40 percent of the cost required to educate children with disabilities. However, the federal share has fallen significantly short for decades; it now sits around 16 percent.

(I have a little more here on the federal budget process as a whole. The post is from 2015 and also offers a look back at how a budget proposal under President Obama and the Congressional budgeting process compared.)

New ESSA guidance on state plans

A few days before President Trump released his budget proposal, ED released a new guideline document for states to use as they develop their state plans required under ESSA. The guidelines replace a similar document issued by the Obama administration late last year, which was aligned to the accountability rule Congress scrapped last week. The new guidelines align only with what is written in ESSA, since the now obsolete rule has no teeth and ED cannot replace it unless Congress writes a new law that gives the department the new authority.

ThinkstockPhotos-478554066_F gradeUltimately, states have more flexibility with regard to designing their plans. That includes offering summative accountability scores for districts, which ATPE argued against in comments to the Obama administration. Texas enacted an “A through F” grading system for schools last legislative session and there are bills in the current legislature that aim to tweak the system prior to its going into effect next school year. Despite the lack of requirement from the federal government and the fact that several states have abandoned their own versions of the letter grading system, Texas does not seem poised to scrap the “A through F” grading aspect of the law.

States must still submit their ESSA state plans by April 3 for review and by September 18 for approval. The Texas Education Agency has yet to share its ESSA plan.

 

Texans in Congress support federal voucher bills as Trump continues privatization push

United States Capitol BuildingIt probably comes as no surprise to Texans that federal voucher bills are being filed in the U.S. Congress after President Donald Trump campaigned on a $20 billion voucher plan promise. He continued to promote such a plan last night during his first speech to Congress. However, Texans might be surprised to learn that some of their elected representatives are jumping on board as supporters of these pieces of legislation.

Texan serves as original co-sponsor on House voucher bill

A bill termed the “Choices in Education Act of 2017” was filed in the U.S. House recently with Texas Rep. Pete Olson (R-Sugar Land) as an original co-sponsor of the legislation. H.R. 610 would create a federal voucher program and repeal the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which was most recently amended by and is commonly referred to as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Instead, the Department of Education’s (ED) authority would be limited to awarding block grants to states that legalize vouchers and follow the federal voucher program requirements.

The “Choices in Education Act” voucher would work like this:

  • ED would distribute block grants to qualified states.
  • States would distribute that money to districts based on the number of eligible school children within each district.
  • Districts would be responsible for distributing a portion of their funds to parents who choose to enroll their child in a private school or home-school their child. The amount distributed would be equal to the per-student federal funding in each state. Districts would be responsible for distributing funding in a way that ensures money is spent on “appropriate educational expenses.”

Both Texas senators co-sponsor Senate voucher bill

In the U.S. Senate, Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) has a voucher bill (S. 235) called the “Creating Hope and Opportunity for Individuals and Communities through Education Act” or the CHOICE Act. Both Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz have signed on as cosponsors.

The “Choice Act” has three parts:

  1. The bill would expand eligibility for the “D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program,” the federally funded voucher program that distributes funding to students in the District of Columbia only.
  2. The bill would make funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) portable, meaning qualified students could take their portion to the private or public school of their choice. It would also provide states seed money for establishing a special education voucher program.
  3. The bill would create the Military Scholarship Program, allowing students living on military bases to use a voucher at the private or public school of their choice. Students would be eligible for the combined cost of tuition, fees, and transportation, with an $8,000 cap for elementary students and $12,000 for secondary students.

White House continues push but offers no details

The White HouseLast night during his prime time speech to a joint session of Congress, his first time to address the body, President Donald Trump reiterated his support for vouchers and called on Congress to pass a bill that funds “school choice for disadvantaged youth.” He didn’t offer additional details on such a plan, adding that “families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious, or home school that is right for them.”

It has been reported that the White House is considering a tax credit scholarship approach, something neither of the above bills would offer. Again, details on the type of federal tax credit scholarship President Trump might be considering have not been released. (Check out an example of a tax credit scholarship in our post on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s voucher bill being considered here in Texas.) In short, tax credit scholarships give taxpaying entities or individuals a break on their taxes in exchange for donations to a voucher fund. The fund is then used to provide vouchers for students to attend private schools or to fund a home-school education. During his campaign, President Trump campaigned on a promise to redirect $20 billion dollars in federal spending to a voucher program.

 

17_web_Spotlight_AdvocacyCentral_1ATPE members can alert their federal representatives of their opinions on these and other federal voucher bills by logging on to Advocacy Central.

Senate confirms Betsy DeVos with help from Vice President

The U.S. Senate voted today to confirm Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education. Senators were literally split on her nomination, a 50-50 tie. The anticipated scenario meant Vice President Mike Pence was on hand to break the tie, and his favorable vote sealed her confirmation.

Two Republican senators announced last week that they would vote against DeVos, which meant just one more Republican senator needed to join Democrats in opposing her nomination in order to block her confirmation. Despite reports that Senate offices were flooded with messages from constituents and despite targeted communication efforts aimed at a few seemingly sympathetic Senate Republicans, no additional “no” vote was identified. Interestingly, today was the first time the Vice President has broken a tie vote for a cabinet nominee.

ATPE weighed in on DeVos’s confirmation once it was final. In a statement to the press, I shared our intent to work collaboratively with DeVos and our hope that she “will focus her energy on supporting the only school system that supports all children — the public school system.” We will continue to work in conjunction with our federal relations team to ensure the voice of Texas educators and ATPE members is heard in Washington.

Final DeVos confirmation vote anticipated Monday

The nomination of Betsy DeVos to become the U.S. Secretary of Education advanced to the Senate floor this week. The full Senate is expected to take a final vote on her nomination Monday.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee advanced her nomination out of committee Tuesday on a party line vote, with all Republicans voting in favor and all Democrats opposing the advancement of her nomination out of committee. Two Republicans expressed uncertainty during the committee but ultimately voted in favor at that time; they later said they will oppose her nomination on the Senate floor. Without an additional identified “no’ vote, this creates a tie vote, with 50 senators expected to vote for her nomination and 50 expected to vote against. Under that scenario, the Vice President breaks the tie, meaning DeVos would seek confirmation through the help of Vice President Mike Pence.

17_web_Spotlight_AdvocacyCentral_1All reports still suggest that Texas’s two senators are poised to vote in favor of her nomination. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) told CNN this morning that concerns over DeVos were not fair, adding, “If people think our public education system is perfect, then I guess they don’t think we need to have any changes or any choices for students and their families,” he said. “I certainly think we do.” ATPE members can still log on to Advocacy Central to express their position on the nomination of Betsy DeVos by writing, calling, or contacting their Texas senators via social media.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol, the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee is quickly pressing forward on something seen as a huge opportunity under the Trump Administration: vouchers. The Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education held a hearing this week entitled, “Helping Students Succeed Through the Power of School Choice.” Among the invited testifiers was Former Texas Commissioner of Education Michael Williams. He advocated for “private school choice” and encouraged the federal government to leave accountability up to states. The full hearing can be viewed here.

DeVos nomination heads to Senate floor while opposition votes grow

 

The U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee advanced the nomination of Betsy DeVos to the Senate floor on Tuesday. The 12-11 vote broke down on party lines, with all Republicans voting in favor and all Democrats opposed to the vote. However, two Republicans expressed some indecision during the hearing and later confirmed they’ll vote against her nomination on the Senate floor.

E

The partisan breakdown over the nomination of Betsy DeVos has been on display since her confirmation hearing. The vote this week was no exception. HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) continued to express his support for the nominee and denied a request from Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) to delay the vote. Alexander called DeVos the “most questioned” education secretary in Senate history, which again had Murray pointing to the fact that this nominee is different from previous education secretaries and more time is needed in order to adequately vet the nominee.

This time, however, Alexander didn’t seem to have the full backing of all of his Republican colleagues on the committee. Two Republican Senators, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-WA) and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), expressed uncertainty with regard to their position on DeVos’s nomination. Both ultimately advanced the nomination to the Senate floor, but acknowledged the nominee had not yet earned their full support.

Today, both Republican senators announced that they have decided to oppose DeVos’s nomination when a vote is taken on the Senate floor. This is a big development as now only one additional Republican would need to join Democrats in opposing DeVos in order to block her confirmation. A simple majority on the Senate floor is all that is needed to confirm DeVos.

Opposition has grown since DeVos fumbled her confirmation hearing and calls to Senate offices have increased. The opposition has expressed serious concerns over DeVos’s credentials, lack of commitment to public education, understanding of federal law, and financial connections and contributions, among others. Murray asked for Tuesday’s committee vote on the nominee to be delayed in order to have more time to review DeVos’s responses to questions senators were not given time to ask during her confirmation hearing. Answers to most of the follow-up questions asked of DeVos can be found here.

17_web_Spotlight_AdvocacyCentral_1Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz will now have a chance to vote on Betsy DeVos when her confirmation vote hits the Senate floor. ATPE members can access Advocacy Central to write, call, or contact their senators via social media and express their position on the nomination of Betsy DeVos. A date for the final vote has not been set.

Related Content: The U.S. House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education will meet tomorrow (Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017) for a hearing entitled, “Helping Students Succeed Through the Power of School Choice.” Among the invited testifiers is Former Texas Commissioner of Education Michael Williams. Read more about the hearing and access to information to view the hearing live here.

Outcry against DeVos continues amid majority support from U.S. Senate

Educators, parents and other stakeholders continue to express concern over Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos and her qualifications to the lead the U.S. Department of Education. Especially since her nomination hearing held last week, concerns are growing regarding DeVos’s lack of commitment to public education, meaningful experience in public schools, and credentials to become the next Education Secretary. U.S. Senate Democrats aren’t letting up, but the latest reports continue to indicate she has wide support among Republicans, meaning her confirmation is in sight.

After pressing hard for a delay of the vote to advance DeVos’s nomination to the full Senate (the final step in the process to confirmation), Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee got a small win over the weekend. They had requested the delay in order to have more time to review the Office of Government Ethics report that found 102 potential conflicts of interest DeVos would have on the job (she’s agreed to divest from the companies and investments of concern) and to give her more time to answer additional questions they were unable to ask during her confirmation hearing. Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) ultimately granted the delay, pushing it to Jan. 31, but he and many of his Republican colleagues remain vocal in support of the nominee.

That does not seem to be the case when considering the outcry from educators, parents, and the public, which has exploded since the hearing. As we reported last week, DeVos showed a lack of understanding for some federal education laws, namely the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. She also failed to commit to protecting funding for public schools, wouldn’t agree that equal and rigorous accountability should follow tax dollars, and didn’t indicate a belief that federal laws protecting and supporting students should extend to any school where public money was transferred.

Despite all of that, in a publication this week, Chairman Alexander again called DeVos’s positions “well within the mainstream” of the public’s views on education. He compared the 837 follow-up questions for DeVos to the roughly 50 submitted by Republicans for each of the two previous secretaries nominated by President Obama. And in an exchange on the Senate floor with HELP Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA), Chairman Alexander said Democrats and DeVos’s opponents are “grasping for straws.” Ranking Member Murray countered: “it’s our job to ask [cabinet nominees] tough questions.”

Democrats have also maintained that the two previous Secretaries of Education, Arne Duncan and John B. King, had established records in education. DeVos, on the other hand, has no professional experience in public schools, has never attended public schools, and has never enrolled her children in public schools.

The reality of DeVos’s nomination is that she seems to have a clear path to confirmation. Republicans support her nomination and make up a majority on both the HELP Committee and in the full Senate. Still, as the opposition to her nomination grows, advocates for public education have seen some small wins so far.

17_web_Spotlight_AdvocacyCentral_1Texas’s two Senators do not sit on the HELP committee, but they will vote on confirmation when it hits the Senate floor. ATPE members can access Advocacy Central to write Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz regarding their position on DeVos’s confirmation.

DeVos confirmation hearing fuels concerns

President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, faced her confirmation hearing yesterday in the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee. The hearing, which was scheduled for late-in-the-day and allowed for each senator to ask only one five-minute round of questions, hardly resulted in a serious vetting of DeVos’s credentials and policy positions, but still provided a look at the potential-next-secretary’s agenda.

HELP committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) opened the hearing with praise for DeVos, pointing to her efforts to expand charter schools and push vouchers in states throughout the country, which he called “mainstream” ideas in public education policy. With his Republican colleagues largely in agreement and Democrats pressing her on concerns about her record, the hearing became a partisan debate that failed to offer specifics on many major education policy issues. In fact, while the hearing offered some perspective on the agenda DeVos would support, it was what she wouldn’t or, in some cases, couldn’t answer that offers the most perspective.

DeVos often turned to some version of the response “I look forward to working with you on that” when answering questions. She used the reply to dig in on her support for vouchers, dodging a question from Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) regarding whether she would promise to prevent funding cuts to public education or privatization of the system. She also leaned on the reply when asked about universal childcare for working families and whether all schools receiving federal funding (think vouchers) should be required to report instances of harassment, discipline, or bullying.

DeVos similarly failed to state whether all schools receiving federal funding should be held to the same accountability standards, instead diverting to the lack of apples-to-apples accountability standards traditional public schools and charter schools currently face.

Another regularly asserted answer by DeVos was that certain education policy issues are better left to states, a response that raised eyebrows when she was asked whether all schools receiving federal money should meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The federal law is the nation’s second largest federal education program and distributes about $13 billion in funding to states. When DeVos later admitted that she “may have confused” the law, one senator and many following the hearing expressed concern over her lack of familiarity. In another exchange, DeVos had trouble deciphering the difference between student growth and student proficiency when using tests to measure student performance.

Democrats on the committee advocated strongly for an additional round of questioning, an opportunity afforded to senators vetting cabinet picks in other committees, but the request was denied by Chairman Alexander who reminded committee members that the same process was used for several previous education secretaries as they faced confirmation. Still, Democrats argued unsuccessfully that those picks had been individuals with established credentials in education, unlike DeVos.

Per the chairman’s instructions, senators have until Thursday evening to submit any additional questions to DeVos in writing. She committed to attempting to answer those questions prior to the committee’s vote on her nomination, which is scheduled to take place on Tuesday, Jan. 24. Committee members were assured that the vote would only take place if the final Office of Government Ethics letter is sent to the committee by this Friday, giving senators time for review the relevant information about potential conflicts of interest.

Despite the above, DeVos has the support of Republicans, which is enough to garner the simple majority needed for her to sail through confirmation in both the HELP committee and on the floor of the Senate. If confirmed, she will take the reins of the Department of Education having no professional experience in our public schools, never attended public schools, and never enrolled her children in public schools.

Federal Update: New Congress kicks off, preps for DeVos confirmation hearing

 

UPDATE: After this story was published, the leaders of the Senate HELP committee announced that the DeVos confirmation hearing had been postponed to Jan. 17 at 4:00 PM CST. Chair Alexander and Ranking Member Murray stated that the change was made “at the request of the Senate leadership to accommodate the Senate schedule.”

 

Congress kicked off a new session last week with two new members from Texas and new members in top ranking positions on committees important to education and educators. This week, Congress is set to proceed with the Senate confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos to become the new U.S. Secretary of Education.

The first education-related item up on the new Congress’s agenda is the confirmation hearing for President-Elect Donald Trump’s education secretary pick, Betsy DeVos. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee will meet Wednesday at 9:00 AM CST to begin the billionaire voucher-advocate’s confirmation process. DeVos remains a provocative pick for public education supporters as she has fought for decades on behalf of voucher proposals in several states, led advocacy organizations that pushed alt-school-choice options, and has no meaningful experience in the classroom or our public schools. Still, most Senate Republicans have praised her nomination and only Democrats are expected to show any opposition on Wednesday.

E

The Senate HELP committee will have the choice to vote to move the nomination to the full Senate or take no action. Since DeVos’s nomination is expected to make it out of committee, the committee will likely report her nomination to the full Senate where she will need a simple majority vote for final confirmation. Watch DeVos’s confirmation hearing live or archived here.

While Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) remain the leaders of the Senate HELP committee in the new Congress, education committees in the U.S. House are experiencing changes in leadership. The U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce will now be led by Chair Virginia Foxx (R-NC), replacing the previous chair, Rep. John Kline (R-MN), who retired at the end of the year. The committee’s Democratic leader remains Ranking Member Bobby Scott of Virginia.

The U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, which in previous sessions has seen bills to repeal the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) and Government Pension Offset (GPO), will also have new leadership, but, in this case, only on the Democratic side of the aisle with new Ranking Member Richard Neal of Massachusetts. The House Ways and Means committee continues to be led by Chair Kevin Brady (R-TX), who has worked for years with ATPE and other groups to pass legislation that more fairly distributes Social Security benefits to teachers and other affected employees. ATPE is optimistic that the new ranking member, who co-authored Brady’s Equal Treatment of Public Servants Act (ETPSA) will fight alongside Chair Brady as they work towards repeal of the WEP this year.

Two new members of Congress from Texas also began work after being sworn in last week. Republican Representative Jodey Arrington of Lubbock and Democrat Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen both replace retiring members Randy Neugebauer and Ruben Hinojosa, respectively. ATPE sent letters welcoming Reps. Arrington and Gonzalez to Congress and welcomes all of the new members and leaders to their new roles. Stay tuned for updates from Washington as the new administration and Congress get underway.

Congressional subcommittee to examine federal education funding rules tomorrow

United States Capitol BuildingThe U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce will meet tomorrow in Washington, D.C. to discuss a new proposed funding-related rule by the U.S. Department of Education (ED). The “supplement, not supplant” regulatory proposal is part of ED’s implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) passed by Congress last year to reauthorize the country’s premier federal education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). On Wednesday, Sept. 21, the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, chaired by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN), will hold a hearing entitled, “Supplanting the Law and Local Education Authority Through Regulatory Fiat.”

As described in a press release from the committee announcing tomorrow’s hearing, “The Department of Education has released a proposed rule changing the longstanding requirement that federal funds supplement—not supplant—state and local funds. Concerns have been raised that the department’s unprecedented regulatory proposal does not adhere to the letter and intent of the law and will have significant consequences for students and schools.” Scheduled witnesses have not yet been announced, but the hearing will be live-streamed starting at 10 a.m. Eastern/9 a.m. Central on Wednesday, Sept. 21. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates on ESSA implementation.

Social Security Update: Real reform

It is rare, unfortunately, how often we have the opportunity to have real discussions with elected officials about increasing public education employees’ benefits. The state hasn’t given educators a pay raise since 2006, and retiree benefits, while stable, have not increased aside from the issuance of a one-time 13th check.

Today we have the very unique opportunity to move one step closer to undoing the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP), the provision in federal Social Security (SS) law that reduces the benefits of thousands of Texas public education employees every year. As we have reported, Congressman Kevin Brady has filed H.R. 711, the Equal Treatment of Public Servants Act, that proposes to eliminate the existing WEP and replace it with a new, fairer formula that accurately reflects a retiree’s history of employment and contributions to SS. The U.S. House Ways and Means Committee will be hearing and voting on H.R. 711 this afternoon.

If passed, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that anyone who is retired and affected by the current WEP as of December 31, 2017, along with anyone who turns 62 by December 31, 2017, and has uncovered service but has yet to begin receiving SS benefits will receive an average annual rebate of $486. Some retirees will receive a lower amount. However, those affected most by the WEP will receive a rebate as high as $720. The even better news is that this rebate begins in 2018 and will continue every year for the retiree’s lifetime.

For those future retirees not turning 62 by December 31, 2017, the average yearly SS benefit increase will be approximately $900.

While this is not a complete and full repeal of the WEP, it is most certainly a step forward. What ATPE members have asked for all along is to be treated fairly and to receive the SS benefits they worked for and contributed towards; H.R. 711 achieves this goal.

We will always work toward increasing the livelihood of public education employees. Any benefit increase is well-deserved, and it would be irresponsible to not take the opportunity to increase benefits and create a more equitable system.

Stay tuned to TeachtheVote.org for updates.