Legislative Activity

College Affordability Initiatives

After failing last week to secure enough votes to proceed to floor consideration of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) student loan reform legislation, the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act (S. 2432), Democratic Senators committed to continuing to raise the issue – eyeing a week in September to refocus on student loans – and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension (HELP) Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) vowed to address student debt issues in reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. (He hopes to release a draft bill in the coming months.) Currently, Committee leaders are looking at a variety of bipartisan changes to the current student loan system. These reforms would include prohibiting part-time students from borrowing enough money to pay for school full-time, permitting colleges to require additional loan counseling, and giving schools the ability to limit the amount of loans a student may take out to pay for their education.

Additionally, in the aftermath of the stalled Warren bill and Presidential Executive Order on student loans, Democratic leaders offered other ideas under consideration in the higher education debate, such as penalizing institutions whose tuition outpaces inflation and automatic income-based repayment on student loans. Moreover, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NY) plans to introduce several pieces of legislation aimed at protecting borrowers against auto-defaults in the event of death, disability, and/or bankruptcy.

FY 2015 Appropriations

Last week, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies approved the Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill. A summary of the bill was released, with full text and report language to be released when the full Committee takes up the measure. The full Committee mark-up was originally scheduled to occur last Thursday but was postponed due to a number of controversial healthcare-related provisions in the bill that did not have bipartisan support. As such, the measure bill has now been postponed indefinitely. Additionally, Sen. Lamar Alexander, Ranking Member of the HELP Committee, had planned to offer amendments to the bill prohibiting the federal government from (1) incentivizing states to adopt the Common Core State Standards and (2) using federal funds to establish a college ratings system. (Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Michael Capuano (D-MA) introduced a resolution last week “strongly disagreeing” with the President’s proposed ratings system.)

The draft bill provides $156.8 billion in base discretionary funding, which is level-funding from FY 2014.  The measure makes additional investments in early learning (combined increase of $348,327,000 for Head Start, the Child Care and Development Block Grant, Preschool Development Grants, and IDEA Grants for Infants and Families), programs and care for unaccompanied child migrants (more than doubles FY 2014 funding), and job training (increases WIA state grants by $36 million). The measure also supports an increase to the maximum Pell Grant award to $5,830, increased funding for campus-based aid programs by $50 million, increased TRIO funding by $8.4 million, and it replaces mandatory funds eliminated in the 2013 budget agreement for student loan servicing. Moreover, it further invests in Education for the Disadvantaged (Title I) (increase of $50 million) and maintains level funding for Early Childhood Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems at $34.5 million.

Upcoming Hearing:

  • Monday, June 23: The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs’ Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight will hold a roundtable discussion on campus sexual assault as it relates to university administrative processes and the criminal justice system. The hearing was initially scheduled for June 16th and is the last of three roundtables on the topic planned by Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).

Regulatory Activity

Mitchell’s College Affordability Agenda

In his first public appearance at the University of California Washington Center, the Department of Education Under Secretary Ted Mitchell’s remarks gave us a glimpse at his college affordability agenda. He shared that:

  • borrowers and prospective borrowers should be permitted to use prior-prior-year income information when completing FAFSA forms.  If Congress does not take action on a timeline desired by the Department, Under Secretary Mitchell indicated that executive action is an option.
  • the Department needs to improve, through transparency and other methods, its efforts to ensure that students are aware of their student loan and loan repayment options.
  • the Department should look to streamline and simplify federal student loan options to minimize borrower confusion.
  • the Department has a continued interest in student loan debt refinancing.

ConnectED Hub and E-Rate

The Department of Education has launched “ConnectED Hub,” an online site geared toward helping schools have better access to resources to improve technology and its use in K-12 classrooms. The resources, including apps, are currently being offered by 10 companies that have made ConnectED commitments earlier this year. According to the website, Adobe, Autodesk, Esri, and O’Reilly Media are opening up learning software and content resources to all eligible schools. Additionally, Apple, AT&T, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon are working with non-profit organizations and communities to help some of the neediest schools with hardware, software, and wireless connectivity.

The focus on connectivity in classrooms will continue this week as Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler is expected to share his proposal for modernizing the E-Rate program with the other Commissioners. One aspect of the proposal will most likely be getting Wi-Fi in schools by authorizing the use of E-Rate funds for this purpose.

Although the proposal has not been released, the Chairman has already received criticism for it by more than 100 organizations. Last week, these groups sent a letter to the FCC outlining their recommendations for reform. Many of them oppose key aspects of the proposal because they have heard that it is based on a per-pupil funding model, as well as fails to include incentives for telecommunications companies to help connect schools that have the most need and to make their pricing transparent. The groups are also concerned that the proposal will likely not call for a permanent increase in funding over the $2.4 billion currently allocated to E-Rate.

The Chairman plans to make his proposal an agenda item for the FCC’s July 11 meeting. He is looking to move quickly on his proposal in order to implement it by the 2015-2016 school year.

Bureau of Indian Education – Blueprint for Reform

The White House has released its “Blueprint for Reform,” which is based on findings and recommendations prepared by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) Study Group. According to the White House, the BIE educates 48,000 American Indian students in 23 states at 183 elementary and secondary schools and dormitories.

The Blueprint focuses on five areas of reform: (1) Highly Effective Teachers and Principals; (2) Agile Organizational Environment – improving responsiveness, support, and resources to better aid in high student performance and outcomes; (3) Promote Educational Self-Determination for Tribal Nations – support efforts of tribal Nations to directly operate BIE-funded schools; (4) Comprehensive Supports through Partnerships – assist with raising student performance through parental, community, and organizational partnerships; and (5) Budget that Supports Capacity-Building Mission.

As a first step in implementing recommendations in the Blueprint, last Friday, Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary Sally Jewell signed an order to increase tribal control of schools. The Department is also partnering with Verizon and other companies to improve connectivity in BIE schools. Additionally, the Department plans to appoint an E-Rate specialist to provide technical assistance to increase the competitiveness of E-Rate applications from BIE-funded schools.

As for the Department of Education, it will issue waivers from federal education funding restrictions to give BIE schools more flexibility in driving up student achievement rates, in addition to other actions. The White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education will also host listening sessions for stakeholders to identify ways to improve school climate and discuss issues related to bullying, school discipline policies and disparate effects, and offensive imagery and symbolism.  More information about the Administration’s efforts is summarized in the White House’s fact sheet.

Department of Education’s Regulatory Agenda

As the halfway point for 2014 nears, the Department of Education’s regulatory agenda for the remainder of the year is full, with a lot of regulatory activity occurring in July. This month, the Department is expected to issue its proposed rule to address changes to campus safety and security reporting as required by the Clery Act.

In July, the Department is scheduled to issue proposed rules on teacher preparation programs and the School Improvement Grants (SIG) Program. Additionally, within the same month, the Department will likely issue proposed rules for all of the topics considered under the Program Integrity and Improvement Negotiated Rulemaking Committee, which adjourned last month. It appears that the proposed rule on the definition of adverse credit for Direct PLUS Loan eligibility may be issued separately from the other package of issues – cash management of funds, state authorization for programs offered through distance education or correspondence, state authorization for foreign locations, and clock-to-credit hour conversion.  In October, the Department is scheduled to finalize its gainful employment rule.