By Tim Walker
January 3 marked the first day of the 116th Congress. All eyes were on the House of Representatives, which welcomed 101 new members and a new pro-public education majority. On the first day, the House, under the new speakership of Nancy Pelosi, quickly passed spending bills to end the two-week long government shutdown. That’s just the beginning. Here are just some of the issues that will see quick action in the first months of 2019.
The aftershocks of the Great Recession and the reckless fiscal policies of the previous Congress (manifesting in the massive tax giveaway to the wealthiest and corporations signed into law by President Trump in December 2017) caused federal spending on education to crater over the past decade. Programs that benefit our most vulnerable students – the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Title I and Title II – have been damaged the most. In the 2017-18 school year, public schools received $3.7 billion (19 percent) less for Title I students than they did in 2010, and the federal share of IDEA funding was the lowest since 2001.
So look for the House of Representatives in particular to address spending inequities to significantly boost funding for these and other programs, including ways to help teacher compensation.
In what will undoubtedly be a contentious and rancorous couple of years on Capitol Hill, a hint of bipartisanship hovers over the issue of the nation’s infrastructure, and NEA is pushing for school infrastructure and modernization to be part of any package. Doing something about the outdated and even hazardous conditions so many students are learning in – a crisis pushed to the forefront by the #RedforEd movement – may bring the two political parties together. Passing the Rebuild America’s Schools Act, which would invest $100 billion to upgrade high poverty schools that pose health and safety risks to students and staff, will be a top education priority.
Gun Violence/School Safety
In the wake of the appalling rash of school shootings last year, many successful candidates for local, state and federal offices in 2018 made common sense measures to reduce gun violence the centerpiece of their campaigns. In addition to ignoring pleas to even consider background checks or debate the ban on assault-style rifles, the previous Congress even refused to appropriate funds for the Centers for Disease Control to research the epidemic of gun violence. Overwhelming majorities of Americans demand action and the 116th Congress – at least the House – stands ready to do something. That begins on Tuesday (the 8th) with the introduction of a bipartisan universal background checks bill in the House that Democratic leadership plans to swiftly bring to a vote.
Since taking office, the Trump administration has pursued an immigration agenda that is, in the words of NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, “hateful, misguided, and inhumane.” The announcement in September 2017 that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, or DACA, was being dismantled sparked fear and anxiety in the 800,000 recipients (including many students and more than 9,000 educators) brought to the U.S. as children. Congress has repeatedly failed to find a permanent legislative solution for the nation’s Dreamers (named for the DREAM act, a bipartisan bill that includes multiple pathways to citizenship), as lawmakers have held their future hostage for Trump’s wasteful and ineffective border wall. With Speaker Pelosi vowing to pass the DREAM Act in the House, pressure will build on the Senate to follow suit.
Betsy DeVos Under Scrutiny
Since Betsy DeVos took the helm of the Education Department following her contentious confirmation hearing in February 2017, she has relentlessly attacked public school funding and civil rights protections for students while championing school privatization and shilling for predatory for-profit colleges.
While DeVos has appeared before education committees in both Houses to answer questions about her actions over the past couple of years, we can expect lawmakers to sharpen their oversight into her most controversial moves. New House committee chairs are eager to call DeVos to account for her decisions to roll back regulation and policies designed to protect students – students sexually assaulted on college campuses, students defrauded by for-profit colleges, students targeted by discriminatory discipline policies and transgender students denied basic rights while in school. In addition, expect heightened scrutiny into potential conflicts of interest at the DOE.
By almost any indicator of economic well-being, people with college degrees have it better. But fewer and fewer Americans can afford it, which is why so many take on crushing debt. Currently 44.5 million student loan borrowers in the U.S. owe a total of $1.5 trillion – much of it held by the federal government.
The college affordability crisis has to be addressed on multiple fronts, but Congress can start by reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA). Since 1965, the HEA has helped literally millions of students attend college and university by establishing need-based grants, work-study opportunities, and federal student loans. The law was usually renewed every 5 or 6 years but reauthorization has been in limbo since 2008. HEA is needed now more than ever as divestment in higher education at the state level accelerated after the Great Recession. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, states invested $9 billion less in public colleges and universities in 2017 than they did in 2008.