Legislative Update: FY2017 Funding, Vouchers and More

First up—guidance you do not want to miss: Last week, the U.S. Department of Education issued a seven page memo detailing possible uses of federal funding through ESSA to support STEM education. The must-see document has helpful examples of how states, schools and districts can leverage ESEA, IDEA, and Perkins Funds for STEM education. The letter can be found here.

Congress and the FY2017 Budget

The budget grabbed all the attention last week, as the Continuing Resolution (CR) for FY2017 programs official ran out on April 28 amid the ensuring drama over whether to shut down the federal government, actually fund FY2017 programs (we are now halfway through FY2017), extend the CR for another week, fund the wall, and finish a health care bill (Congress choose to extend the existing CR for another week).

Late Sunday night (April 30) POLITICO reported that a funding agreement was in place through the end of September.  It appears that funding for Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE) Title IV block grant program for fiscal year 2017, authorized by the Every Student Succeeds Act, will be at $400 million this year, a fraction of the ESSA authorization level of $1.65 billion. With the low funding level, Congress changed the distribution for this program: money will go directly to the states and will be a competitive grant program lead by the states (this year only), instead of a formula program to all schools. More on the Title IV program here.

The Trump <skinny> budget for FY2018 proposes $59 billion for the Department of Education, a $9.2 billion cut to the Education Department’s $68 billion budget, which would cut agency spending by 13 percent below the 2017 CR level. Read more here.

Update on Every Student Succeeds Act

Several states have submitted their plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, and more are working to meet the September deadline for ESSA plans. Right now 10 states have plans out in some form. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) has 120 days to review the plans; if it makes no comment during that period, the plans are considered approved.

What’s not in the state plans? Expanded school choice programs, reports U.S. News & World Report. Many states are proposing to track student scores with new methods beyond just test scores, reports PBS.

In an interview last week Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told Fox News that the Every Student Succeeds Act does away with the whole argument about Common Core and “it leaves up to the states” to make decisions about which standards to choose. “There really isn’t any Common Core anymore,” stated DeVos. President Trump and his advisors have repeatedly said the Administration would repeal Common Core.

Spotlight on School Vouchers

There has been a lot of press attention on school vouchers lately. Many advocates believe that the national school voucher program President Trump has called for could be fashioned after the tax credit scholarship program in Florida—created by former Governor Jeb Bush—that  now pays  private school tuition for almost 100,000 low income students so that they can attend private, mostly religious schools.

A national tax credit based on the Florida model to expand school vouchers nationwide could be inserted into a tax reform package and could be passed through a simple majority in the Senate. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) have proposed legislation that would create a program similar to the Florida tax credit scholarship at the federal level. Read more here.

In addition to Florida, currently about 17 states also offer some type of tax credit scholarships. These programs provide tax credits to individuals or corporations that donate to a state-approved organization, which then awards funds to working class families for private school tuition.

In anticipation of school voucher legislation, a group of Senate Democrats has requested that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conduct a study to investigate the structure and accountability of tax credit scholarship programs in the states and determine whether state voucher programs have resulted in mismanagement of public funds.

Education Dept. Needs to Improve Oversight of 21st Century Program

A GAO report last week found that the Department of Education oversight of afterschool programs funded via the 21st Century Program was lacking.  

From the report: “Relevant research we reviewed that compared program participants to those of non-participants suggests that the 21st Century program is effective in improving students’ behavioral outcomes, such as school-day attendance and reduced disciplinary incidents, more often than their academic outcomes. However, because Education’s current 21st Century performance measures primarily focus on students’ reading and math scores on state tests, Education lacks useful data about whether the program is achieving its objectives to improve students’ behavioral outcomes such as attendance and discipline—the areas where the program most frequently has a positive effect. Education officials have not substantially revised the program’s performance measures since 1998, in part because its authorization lapsed from fiscal years 2008 through 2016. Leading practices in performance measurement call for federal agencies to align performance measures with program objectives.”

President Trump proposed zeroing out this program in the FY2018 budget, after OMB Director Mick Mulvaney told reporters of “no demonstrable evidence” that after-school programs help students. The GAO is considered the watchdog of government.

Executive Order to Rid Schools of “Federal Overreach”

And, finally, President Trump last Wednesday  signed an executive order that directs Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to determine where the “federal government has unlawfully overstepped state and local control.”

Administration officials told USA Today that “In recent years too many in Washington have advanced top-down mandates that take away autonomy and limit the options available to educators, administrators, and parents,” and the executive order puts an end to this overreach, yet admitted to reporter Greg Toppo that DeVos already was empowered to do this. Read more.

Stay tuned, and watch for more updates in future issues of NSTA Express.

Jodi Peterson is the Assistant Executive Director of Communication, Legislative & Public Affairs for the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and Chair of the STEM Education Coalition. Reach her via e-mail at jpeterson@nsta.org or via Twitter at @stemedadvocate.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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