Wednesday, November 21, 2007

House Education and Labor Committee Approves HEA Bill

The Higher Education Act (HEA) has been subject to the reauthorization process for more than four years. In that time, bills have been introduced and seen sporadic progress, but no comprehensive reauthorization package has been signed into law, despite the enactment of a number of bills that affect federal student aid programs. The College Cost Reduction and Access Act (PL 110-84) was approved and signed into law in September. That measure invests approximately $20 billion in federal student aid by reducing subsidies paid to federal student loan lenders, authorizes the new TEACH Grant program, reduces student loan interest rates, proposes certain college cost containment strategies, enacts loan forgiveness for certain public sector employees, authorizes a new program intended to support Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Hispanic Serving Institutions and increases the Pell Grant award to $5,400 incrementally over a five-year period.

Although that bill was widely supported, some worried that its enactment would adversely affect prospects for a comprehensive reauthorization proposal. Before last week, the House had not acted on such legislation, but the Senate's larger HEA bill, S. 1642, was passed by the Senate on July 24 by a vote of 95-0.

Last Friday, George Miller (D-Calif.), House Education and Labor Committee chairman, and Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Texas), chairman of the Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning and Competitiveness, introduced HR 4137, legislation that they assert addresses "the soaring price of college and remove[s] other obstacles that make it harder for qualified students to go to college." Further, "The College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007 would reform and strengthen the nation's higher education programs to ensure that they operate in the best interests of students and families."

The bill attempts to address college costs by proposing a number of new reporting requirements for colleges and universities. It also would impose new disclosure and reporting requirements on student loan lenders to address what some consider an industry with insufficient oversight.

The bill's Title II provisions modify current law drastically. The bill revises the Teacher Quality Enhancement Grants for States and Partnerships; it eliminates the State Grant and Teacher Recruitment Grant programs and turns the Partnership Grant program into a revised Teacher Quality Partnership Grant program. This new program emphasizes Teacher Residency and Induction programs and inserts a reliance on "scientifically valid research." There are a number of new initiatives in Title II, including support for Teach For America, a recruiting effort for science and math teachers and a program that would strengthen relationships between community colleges and teacher preparation programs at four-year institutions.

The larger bill also proposes a number of new programs. A new early childhood education professional development and career task force is authorized. In addition, new college access programs are proposed, as are new student safety and campus emergency management initiatives; databases to share information with students on available financial resources; new science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education programs; and an effort meant to promote environmentally friendly practices on campuses.

On Wednesday, the House Education and Labor Committee met to mark up this legislation. Opening statements from Committee Miller and Ranking Member Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) indicated broad support for the measure and a shared desire to address the increasing cost of college. The session had only a few partisan exchanges, although the proceedings stretched from their 1:30 p.m. start time to almost midnight, with the panel reconvening on the morning of Nov. 15 to record roll call votes on certain amendments and the committee-approved bill. The committee considered more than 40 amendments, although many were withdrawn with the hope of addressing the underlying concerns either before the bill is considered on the House floor or during that debate. On Thursday morning, after the amendment votes, the committee approved the manager's package and a motion to report the bill favorably to the House by a vote of 45-0. Closing comments from the chairman and the ranking member were complimentary of the effort and spirit the bill represents.

Although many commended the bill, no definitive indication was given on when it might be considered on the floor of the House - the next step toward a conference committee between the House and Senate to negotiate their two proposals. Observers are hopeful the bill might be considered in December, with ultimate enactment of a reauthorization bill coming before March 31, 2008.

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