In the wake of the government shutdown and reboot, President Obama and hundreds of advocates for immigrant reform have taken up the crusade against immigration, bringing this issue to the forefront of the minds of policy makers.
Advocates insist that reform is dead, planting themselves in front of deportation vehicles and the offices of nine representatives with high latino populations, including the following: Reps. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), David Valadao (R-Calif.), Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and Joe Heck (R-Nev.). Note: they are all Republican.
The issue is being forced to the forefront because there are less than 20 days left in the legislative calendar – and even though there are more than two months left until the end of the year, Congress will focus solely on the budget crisis – hence, this push. Once the new year hits, 2014 is midterm election year, which means that the focus will be on reelection. (A/N: This is comforting to know that half of every term of a representative is focused on reelection. It is no wonder that the American people feel that Congress is inefficient.)
Immigration has a chance though. Because Boehner brought a vote to the floor of the House that was backed by Democrats and moderate Republicans to end a shutdown, the hope is that he will be swayed to do so again when it comes to immigration. Senate Bill 744 passed over the summer, and the bill drafted by the Democrats may have a chance to pass in the House. In fact, Representative Jeff Dunham from California has signed on and partnered with Nancy Pelosi to attempt and draw partisan support for a House bill. This House bill is similar to the Senate bill. The key difference is in the amendments.
In the Senate version, a controversial amendment was added that “would add 700 hundred of miles of fencing and 20,000 border control agents along the U.S.-Mexico border. That provision was added to the Senate bill to help win votes from conservative Republicans.” However, this was incredibly controversial, and members of the House did not want this amendment added. Instead, a bill “Democratic lawmakers substituted […] that was passed unanimously by the House Homeland Security Committee last spring [was introduced]. That plan instructs the Department of Homeland Security to write a plan that could ensure the apprehension of 90 percent of illegal border-crossers in high-traffic areas within two years and across the entire southern border within five years.” This amendment, since it received bipartisan support, would be more able to draw moderate and even more extreme GOP members to push Boehner to bring a vote to the House floor.
The question is, will Boehner do so? Boehner claims that immigration reform is important and that he is “hopeful” that there will be a vote, but he can make no promises. This legislation is clearly important enough to vote upon – it may even be advantagous for him to say that he called this vote and got legislation to pass (credit claiming). President Obama has put the impetus on him and on the House Republicans. Hopefully Dunham, who crossed the line and responded to the protests at his office, can convince other moderates to cross the aisle, and they can all pressure Boehner into allowing a vote. Otherwise, Boehner may not be in a good position come mid-term elections.
New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker was elected to the Senate on Wednesday, filling the seat of the deceased Democrat Frank Lautenberg. The seat, which was held in the interim by Republican Jeff Chiesa, now returns to the Democrats, increasing the number of Senators caucusing with the Democrats to 55. While the number 55 itself holds no legislative significance, Booker’s election will likely increase the chances of education reform in the Senate.
Booker enters the Senate as a rare breed of Senator. He is a young, nationally popular Democrat seeking the national spotlight, something Senate Democrats have lacked in comparison to Republicans like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul. Booker’s popularity and national following will likely give him a strong position in the Senate despite his youth and inexperience. The symbolic representation of being one of now only two Black Senators should also help catapult him into the legislative spotlight. In summary, Senate Democrats are likely to look to Booker as a new figurehead for the party, giving him a powerful platform for introducing new legislation.
When Booker was mayor of Newark, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said of him, “You have a mayor who is actively engaged. A lot of mayors run from education because it’s difficult and challenging. He’s running to it.” As mayor, Booker tackled a number of important education issues, including a $100 million grant from Mark Zuckerberg to improve Newark schools and give urban youth more opportunities to succeed. His campaign website also lists the following accomplishments:
- More kids in preschool: 61 percent more 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in public preschool;
- Tackling illiteracy: Raised philanthropy to provide 120,000 books for nearly 12,000 low-income students at 20 Newark public schools to help build home libraries;
- Options: Attracted new public school models, leading to families having more quality public education choices;
- Healthier families: By this fall Newark will have doubled the number of schools served by school-based health centers, which serve students and their families with medical, dental and behavioral health care.
- Places to play: Expanded acres of school athletic fields and playgrounds;
- Empowering teachers: Establishment of a “Teacher Innovation Fund” that pays for ideas teachers have to improve student outcomes;
- Rewarding good teachers: Facilitated a groundbreaking teacher’s union contract that made the district the first in New Jersey to offer performance bonuses to effective teachers, and holding accountable ineffective teachers who are failing our kids.
Booker’s devotion to education combined with the myriad of problems in the U.S. school system would make education a perfect issue for him to bring forward or encourage as a new Democratic figurehead. In addition to K-12 education, Booker has also stressed the importance of making higher education more affordable, something Congress has struggled to deal with over the last few months. Now that the shutdown and debt ceiling crises have ended (at least for now), Congress should ideally be looking to create some good news for a change. While immigration reform seems to be the next big item on the list, education reform would be a widely popular move as well, since education has such a broad reach and directly touches the lives of nearly every U.S. citizen. Though Booker has made no explicit statements about putting major education reform on the Congressional agenda, the political atmosphere is ripe for doing so. Booker’s youth and popularity would make him the perfect spokesman for such a bill, and even if such a bill would not be filibuster-proof (see my last post) or would fail to pass the House, it would certainly garner national attention, shifting the focus of the media away from politics and towards actual issues in need of reform.
Every summer there is a legislative push to lengthen the public school year in the United States. Education is an area in which the United States lags behind many of its counterparts, and many legislators attribute that to length of the school year.
President Obama has repeatedly called for a longer school year, arguing that countries such as Korea have school years of up to 220 days (compared to 180 in the US). “That month makes a difference. It means students are losing a lot of what they learn during the school year during the summer … The idea of a longer school year, I think, makes sense,” Obama said. “Now, that’s going to cost some money… but I think that would be money well spent.” The President acknowledges that money in and of itself is not the solution to the problem, but it is certainly necessary: “We can’t spend our way out of it … money without reform will not fix the problem.” The President is clearly aware that the budget is the root of the education debate in America.
Research done by the Rand Corporation suggests that longer summers negatively affect low-income students more than their peers due to a lack of access to educational programs during that time. Because of this, many Congressional Democrats agree with the President on the issue of lengthening the school year. Congressional Republicans, on the other hand, argue that this will be doing exactly what the President claimed he was trying to avoid: throwing more money at the problem.
Although many experts agree that a shorter school year is the reason for the US lagging behind other countries in education, extending the school year would not be simple. In order to avoid spending more money – Congress’ main concern – public schools in the US would have to increase class size by 3.3 students if the school year were to be extended 30 days, according to Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institution. This is something Congressional Democrats should consider before advocating for a shorter summer, as they have repeatedly vowed to decrease class sizes in order to improve student performance.
Furthermore, there are many summer opportunities for students to improve their education outside of the classroom, such as camps, jobs, internships, and community service, which benefit children in a way that cannot be matched in the classroom. These chances could be lost if the school year was extended, thereby decreasing the chances for students to become more well rounded, active members of society.
The battle between Congressional Democrats and Republicans over performance versus the budget only captures a small segment of the debate surrounding a shortened summer for US public schools. While students around the country would surely be upset if they had fewer days of freedom in the warm months of summer, more days of school could benefit American students in the long run, potentially allowing them to catch up to their international peers.
HR5 has passed the House and been reviewed by the Senate twice, and yet no action has been taken to further Senate actions. If it passed by a majority, then logically, it should have been at least looked at by the senate. But since it hasn’t, that makes it interesting for us.
HR 5, or the Student Success Act, is an extension of the No Child Left Behind Act, put into place under a republican president. The new version of this act gives increased flexibility to the state, relies on transparency as a form of accountability, and allows funding to be distributed inequitably. What does this mean? One author argues that, by granting flexibility to the states, states can continue to fund schools that do better than those that don’t (or like Virginia, fund less African-American students). With transparency, the states do not need to change anything, just report the goings on. And inequitable funding is not advisable when the majority of the funding will support already excelling schools.
The reason this bill passed in the House is the fact that state’s rights are an incredibly partisan issue. The split is pretty partisan as well – 221-207 in favor of the bill. The number of Republicans are 232 and Democrats are 207, so clearly there is some dissent in the republican support, but not enough. HR 5 might not be the first version of the bill either. John Kline, the Representative that ‘introduced’ the bill, is also the chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. It is quite possible that he is taking credit, as a republican leader and chair of the committee, to introduce this legislation and take credit. We talked about, in class, how representatives are interested in avoiding blame and taking credit.
The Senate, a democratic body currently, has reviewed it twice, but made no move to put this bill on the calendar, even though it left the House in July. Why would they? This goes against everything democrats believe in, and in the current state of the government, partisanship on what democrats believe is a bad plan will not occur. It’ll be interesting to see if the bill ever makes it through the Senate.
School vouchers are becoming a heated issue in today’s political sphere, due to the Obama Administration’s attempt to freeze Louisiana’s voucher program. House leadership sent a letter of protest to the President, because they feel that he is not justified in his lawsuit, which will “trap poor kids in failing public schools,” according to Politico’s Stephanie Simon. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said President Obama is “ripping low-income students out of good schools that could help them achieve their dreams.”
Governor Jindal feels strongly that parents should have a say in which school their children attend, and that school vouchers are the means to this end. “We make no apologies for giving parents the option to determine the best educational path for their children,” he said. “President Obama has the means to send his children to the school of his choice. Parents in Louisiana should have the same opportunity.” While House Democrats argue that we should focus more on improving our public education system, House Republicans feel that that is an insurmountable task.
Despite Congressional disagreement over this system, vouchers are currently seeing unprecedented levels of use. According to the Alliance for School Choice, a record 245,000 students in 16 states plus D.C. are paying for private school with public subsidies. This shows that the public will seize the opportunity to use vouchers when it is presented to them. Nine states have added or significantly broadened their voucher programs this year, and many others have similar initiatives in the works. Robert Enlow, president of a pro-school choice advocacy group called the Friedman Foundation, says that by 2014, states will be spending $1 billion a year on voucher programs and other such initiatives to send underprivileged students to private schools. This sizeable budget is likely the cause for much of the Congressional tension over the issue, especially as many states continue to slash their education budget.
Although we continue to see the expansion of voucher programs, many of them have not been successful. In cities like Milwaukee, Cleveland, and New Orleans, voucher students produce markedly inferior test results than their public school peers. In Washington DC and New York City, voucher students have performed at the same level as their peers. Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institution said about New York’s voucher students: “If their children are at least doing no worse … it seems reasonable that it’s OK to let people make these choices.” This view is shared by House Republicans, who generally advocate for smaller government and more individual freedom in policy-making scenarios. The Democrats feel that without a demonstration of significant improvement in voucher-students’ performance, the money is better spent improving our nation’s public schools.
This recent school voucher battle is yet another display of the inability of Congress to reach any sort of agreement on a policy issue. If the Justice Department’s lawsuit is not settled before the beginning of the next school year, this matter is likely to play a large roll in the 2014 midterm elections in states that have a voucher system in place.
On October 2nd, Governor Jerry Brown of California signed a suite of bills that effectively reorganized California’s educational system. One of the most notable changes made was the switch from traditional standardized testing to digital standardized testing proposed in Assembly Bill 484.
Assemblywoman Susan A. Bonilla (D-Concord), the author of AB 484, believes that California’s current education system is outdated. According to Bonilla, California’s current education system puts too much emphasis on memorization and should be more focused on problem solving. She believes that a new digital testing system would better prepare state students by giving them “knowledge needed … to succeed in college and careers”. The new law will get rid of California’s traditional standardized test and replace it with computerized test. For the first few years of digital testing, test scores will not be recorded and cannot be used for evaluations. These new testing methods are part of curriculum mandated by the Common Core State Standards initiative. AB 484 passed with 79% of the vote in the California Senate, 69% of the vote in the California Assembly, and wide support from Governor Brown and California school district officials.
The new bill effectively rids the state of any standardized measurement of educational development until the 2014-15 school year. No Child Left Behind mandates the reporting of standardized tests for each academic year. In order to comply with both the new law and NCLB, the state would have to fund both written and digital math and English exams. State Superintendent Tom Torlakson has already said that California cannot pay for two different tests. To further complicate the situation, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has stated the he would be willing to withhold federal funds, up to $ 1.5 billion, if California did not properly assess of its students.
What will happen next?
The conflict here is between two institutions, California’s legislature which wants to adopt the new Common Core Standards and The Department of Education. If schools have to pay for additional testing, then the preferences associated with adopting a new testing system will change. Without the resources to pay, many schools districts would try to opt out or delay the implementation of the new digitized testing system. Some school district superintendents are putting their faith in Gov. Brown to find a resolution to this looming problem. If schools must pay for traditional testing of math and English, it will be interesting to see how the changing electorate preferences will alter the decisions of Gov. Brown and the California Legislature.
The path taken by AB 484 in the California Legislature:
Since education legislation in Congress has been shunted to the backburner while our politicians attempt to fund the government and avoid breaching the debt ceiling, I decided to write an admittedly simplified spatial analysis of the Senate with regards to education.
For parameters, I chose the NEA’s legislative report card as a measure of each Senator’s position on education. The NEA grades each Senator on a scale from A to F, based on his or her adherence to the NEA’s stated aims and legislative goals. Senators were graded on their voting records and five other criteria, reproduced below:
- Cosponsorship of bills critical to advancing NEA’s identified legislative priorities;
- Behind-the-scenes work to advance or impede NEA priority issues;
- Committee votes in support of or against NEA priorities;
- Accessibility of the Member and staff in Washington, DC to NEA staff and leaders;
- Accessibility and education advocacy in the Member’s home state or district.
While this is by no means a perfect spatial measure of the Senate, as there are only five possible outcomes and it takes the NEA’s partisan beliefs as rubric, it was the only such measure of dedication to education that I could find. Unfortunately, the NEA’s latest report card is for the 112th Congress (2011-12), so there are some missing data points for newly-elected Senators and the possibility of change between the current and former Congress. However, I believe that for this simple analysis, the report card should be adequate.
The Education Committee
The first real obstacle to a proposed education bill is the Education Committee (officially the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions). There are 22 Senators on the Committee, 12 Democrats and 10 Republicans. Nine of the twelve Democrats on the Committee received an A from the NEA; the other three, Tammy Baldwin, Christopher Murphy, and Elizabeth Warren, were elected in 2012. On the Republican side, there was one A (Lisa Murkowski), one C (ranking member Lamar Alexander), two Ds, four Fs, one new member (Tim Scott), and one member on a medical leave of absence (Mark Kirk, who has since returned). In order to fill in the gaps in the data, I am assigning all new Democratic Senators a grade of A and all new Republicans a grade of D (the rationale of this will be explained later). This gives the committee as a whole 13 As, one C, three Ds, and four Fs. The median of the committee, which would fall between the eleventh and twelfth members of the committee, is in the A range. Thus, significant education reform (at least reform following the NEA’s education goals) should be able to pass through the Education Committee without any trouble.
The Senate as a Whole
The NEA’s grades for the Senate as a whole are rather stark. Of the 51 Democrats in the 112th Congress, 10 were new members and thus did not receive a grade, and the other 41 all received As. On the Republican side, there were two As, one B, two Cs, five Ds, and 31 Fs, with six new members. There were also two independents, Angus King, who was a new Senator, and Bernie Sanders, who received an A; both caucus with the Democrats. These grades, though they bring into question the objectivity of the NEA, are how I came up with my assumptions for new members. Every single Democrat in the Senate received an A, and I gave the six new Republicans the benefit of the doubt in terms of education and gave them Ds. The overall composition of the Senate, then, is 55 As, one B, two Cs, eleven Ds, and 31 Fs.
To pass the Senate, a bill must receive a simple majority vote; since the median voter in the Senate (between the 50th and 51st Senators) is in the A range, this should mean that any education reform bill favored by the NEA should be able to pass the Senate. However, this does not take into account the filibuster. Senate Republicans, wary of any bills that increase government spending, would be likely to filibuster any sort of education reform bill. To pass a filibuster, the bill would need 60 votes. The 60th vote in the Senate, according to the NEA and my assumptions, is a D. This makes it unlikely that an education reform bill of any kind would be able to pass the Senate due to not having 60 votes to override a filibuster. Whether this is due to ideological differences over the role of the government, different ideas about how the education system should work, or the current fight over government spending is hard to tell from the NEA’s rankings. One thing is for sure, though: until Congress solves the budget and debt ceiling, we are unlikely to see any meaningful education reform bills make it any further than the Senate Education Committee.