Bipartisan Student Loan Interest Rate Bill: Compromise vs. Trivial Talking Points

July 23, 2013

The Senate is expected to vote today to approve a bill that would change how the government sets interest rates on federal student loans. The Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act of 2013 (S. 1334) was developed by a bipartisan group of senators and is backed by the White House. But there are still a few holdouts, including student advocacy groups and some Senate Democrats, particularly Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Chair Tom Harkin (D-IA). Senator Harkin did ultimately co-sponsor the bill despite his stated misgivings.

One of their main beefs with the bill is that if interest rates rise over the next 11 years exactly as the Congressional Budget Office projects, the bill would save taxpayers $715 million compared to current law. 


Sen. Harkin, et al., have turned that figure into a key talking point – the bill reduces the budget deficit “on the backs of students” – but in actuality, it is a trivial matter. Let’s put the $715 million in savings into context.

Financial Literacy Advocates, Call Your Office

The Congressional Budget Office expects the federal government to issue $1.4 trillion in student loans over the next 11 years. So changing the interest rates on $1.4 trillion in loans in a way that is estimated to increase interest payments by $715 million is hardly a meaningful increase – it’s effectively a rounding error. Imagine how silly Senator Harkin and the student advocates would sound if they went out to dinner, racked up a bill of $1,400.72, and then decided they got a raw deal because of the 71.5 cents on the end of the $1,400 bill.

I’ll Gladly Pay You Tuesday for a Hamburger Today

Just about everyone understands that what the CBO projects for the next one, two, and six years is more likely to occur than what the budget office projects for seven and 11 years out. The bipartisan interest rate bill is projected to cost $25 billion over the next six years, $8.1 billion of which will occur in 2013 and $12.7 billion of which will occur in 2014. The bill’s sponsors mainly rely on interest payments in the later years of an 11-year estimate to maybe offset those big costs. In other words, the bill gladly pays budget hawks on Tuesday for tens of billions spent to lower interest rates on student loans today.

Recall that the House-passed interest rate proposal was engineered to save money over six and 11 years to avoid the spending-now/savings-later gamble present in the bipartisan interest rate bill. But now that Republican senators are willing to take that $25 billion gamble, and the president is too, House Republicans look set to go along with it. That sure looks like a victory for anyone who wants to spend more, not less, on student aid.

Normally, the budget hawks balk at a spend-now/save-later deal, but instead they’ve endorsed the bipartisan interest rate bill. Meanwhile, Sen. Harkin and the advocacy groups seem to believe that $715 million in projected savings over 11 years is a good reason to take a pass on $25 billion in spending over the next six.

Big Compromise and Good Policy vs. Trivial Talking Point

The bill is likely to pass the Senate this week, and it’s no wonder why – it lowers interest rates for all borrowers this year, ends the arbitrary rates in place since 2006, makes interest rates sensitive to the economy, and was crafted by Republicans and Democrats who compromised to reach an agreement. An 11-year projection showing that the bill might produce a miniscule amount of savings sure looks like a trivial reason to oppose the bill.

Storify: House 'No Child Left Behind' Debate

July 22, 2013

This post also appeared on our sister blog, Early Ed Watch.

On July 18 and 19, members of the U.S. House of Representatives took to the floor for a heated debate on a proposed reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Rep. John Kline's (R-MN) bill, the Student Success Act, passed 221-207, but the Senate is not expected to take up the measure. We put together this Storify as a quick catch-up on the House debate.

Storify: House 'No Child Left Behind' Debate

July 22, 2013
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This post also appeared on our sister blog, Ed Money Watch.

On July 18 and 19, members of the U.S. House of Representatives took to the floor for a heated debate on a proposed reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Rep. John Kline's (R-MN) bill, the Student Success Act, passed 221-207, but the Senate is not expected to take up the measure. We put together this Storify as a quick catch-up on the House debate.

First Step Toward E-Rate Reform, Not Necessarily ConnectED

July 22, 2013

On Friday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took a first step toward modernizing the E-Rate program, voting that it would begin the reform process. While this is an important first step toward modernization, it remains to be seen what direction the FCC will take as it moves forward with reform.

Last week on Ed Money Watch, I posted a brief review of the latest E-Rate reform proposal put forth by FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, which varies significantly from the ConnectED initiative introduced by President Obama. As he emphasized during his remarks, “Faced with the choice between a one-dimensional national benchmark or local autonomy that benefits local students, I favor the latter.”

Today, on New America’s In the Tank blog, Danielle Kehl from New America’s Open Technology Institute (OTI) and I further analyze Commissioner Pai’s proposal, with an in-depth exploration of his proposal to move to per-pupil funding:

In the education world, per-pupil funding is a common way to administer dollars for variable costs in schools – costs that are associated directly with each student. For desks and textbooks, this is a fairly easy calculation: if you have 1,000 students, you’ll need 1,000 books and 1,000 desks. But there are many potential pitfalls in using per-pupil funding for step costs, which are costs that increase or decrease once a certain threshold has been reached. Indeed, as Chicago Public Schools move this year to per-student funding, there is some concern that the new budget structure will exacerbate school inequality by further reducing budgets of schools with shrinking enrollment.

We also expand further on the issues surrounding service:

Commissioner Pai limited his discussion of next-generation technologies to the problems with differentiating between Priority 1 (which fund Internet and telecommunications services) and Priority 2 (which give money for internal connections and maintenance) funding requests since E-Rate received applications asking for twice as much money as was actually available last year. His concerns about whether schools should be spending their dollars on telephone services instead of classroom connections are valid. But nearly 80 percent of E-Rate schools report that they don’t have the capacity to meet current demand, and many schools still rely on speeds that are similar to the average home user’s. He barely mentioned fiber optic infrastructure, which is the only technology that’s truly future proof and capable of delivering speeds that meet not only today’s needs but also tomorrow’s.

Moving forward with the process, we hope that the various stakeholders can recognize the commonalities in these proposals and work together to modernize the E-Rate program.

For the full analysis, check out the complete post on In the Tank.

Pairing Investments in College Access with Investments in Early Education

July 22, 2013
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My hometown, Kalamazoo, Michigan, made waves in 2005 when the superintendent of the local public school system announced that anonymous donors had established a fund to cover the college tuition of every Kalamazoo Public Schools graduate in perpetuity. The program, known as the Kalamazoo Promise, attracted the attention of national news outlets (NBC Nightly News, CBS Evening News, and the New York Times, among others). Since its inception, community leaders have realized that it’s not enough to make college more affordable and accessible – students need high-quality PreK-12 instruction to be adequately prepared for college. Recent research shows that one of the community’s signature early education initiatives, Ready 4s, substantially improves students’ chances for long-term academic success.

An Alternative to E-Rate 2.0: Another FCC Commissioner’s Vision for Restructuring the Schools and Libraries Program

July 22, 2013

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is gearing up for a monumental task: revamping the E-Rate program, which subsidizes broadband connectivity to connect schools and libraries across the US. As the rulemaking process gets underway, various stakeholders (including two FCC Commissioners) have laid out their own proposals, which differ widely in two key areas: funding and establishing national targets for connectivity.

The Federal Role in Education: Mend it, Don’t End It

July 22, 2013
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A few weeks ago I asked, “if Congress agrees the era of big government is over, why can’t we get an ESEA deal?” Both the Senate Democrats’ and House Republicans’ proposals to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) scale back the federal role in school accountability and improvement and allow for more state autonomy in determining how school performance is evaluated – and what should be done about it when schools don’t measure up. And Friday, for the first time ever, Congress voted on an NCLB reauthorization proposal.

The Student Success Act, sponsored by House Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline (R-MN), passed on a partisan vote of 221-207. But its ultimate chances are slim: a Senate vote is unlikely, and the White House already issued a veto threat. It seems politics (as it often does) stands in the way of Republicans and Democrats in Congress striking a deal. I wrote:

“Unfortunately, with midterm elections fast approaching, lawmakers appear more concerned with scoring political points and toeing the party line than with the give and take of writing complicated policy. And waivers enable the administration to enact its preferred policies, at least temporarily, while simultaneously blaming Congress for inaction. In short, gridlock is a win-win.”

All of that is true. But I didn’t acknowledge that there are, in fact, fundamental disagreements between the parties when it comes to where and how much the federal government should step back. For many Republicans, the answers are everywhere, and as much as possible. Take Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN): “No Washington bureaucrat cares more about a child than a parent does. And no one in Washington knows what is better for an Indiana school than Indiana families do. That is why the Student Success Act puts an end to the administration’s National School Board by putting state and local school districts back in charge of their own schools.” 

In other words, for Republicans the federal role is to distribute money, ask states to report a few data points, and promote school choice. And accountability and transparency are interchangeable terms, despite the fact that research – and past experience – demonstrates that’s not the case. When left to their own devices, states consistently take the easy way out (see here, and here, and here). And real accountability – transparent reporting plus interventions and supports for schools with lackluster results – is more effective than transparency alone.

Public reporting and transparency are well and good, but they are no substitute for meaningful accountability. That’s like saying disclosure of political donations and gifts is the same thing as conflict of interest laws making these activities illegal (just ask Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell to explain the difference). A financial disclosure form isn’t enough to prevent ethical violations, just as school report cards can only identify, not solve, the problems in low-performing schools.

Once the data tell us just how bad (or great) our schools are, doesn’t the federal government have an interest in ensuring state and local officials do something with the results? In the words of Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), maybe it’s time to mend accountability, not end it.

Even the staunchest Democrats, like Rep. George Miller (D-CA), readily admit that “the federal government will never actually improve a school and nor should it try.” But without micromanaging every aspect of accountability and improvement, the federal government can ensure states set consistent, high standards for academic content and achievement. There should be common – or at least, comparable – measures for things like graduation rates, academic proficiency, and adequate student growth. And poor results, particularly for low-income kids, English language learners, and students with disabilities, cannot be acceptable. As Miller would say, “we must continue to support the simple idea that low-performing schools should be identified and required to improve.” The federal government can assist in school improvement efforts without directing them from Washington, working in partnership with states and districts to support their capacity to turnaround low-performing schools.

Indeed, some of the solutions may even require a more ambitious federal role, not a diminished one.  Instead of ceding more and more ground to states, the federal government could double its investments in assessments, data systems, and education research; overhaul teacher training and development; and redress significant disparities in resources between states and school districts. A recent New York Times editorial on testing noted that other countries with strong educational outcomes didn’t achieve these results because of local control. In fact, it’s the opposite. They “typically have gateway exams that determine, for example, if high school students have met their standards. These countries typically have strong, national curriculums. Perhaps most important, they set a high bar for entry into the teaching profession and make sure that the institutions that train teachers do it exceedingly well.”

That’s not to say these are the right policies for our education system. But maybe policymakers shouldn’t give up on the federal government so easily. States can – and have, in recent years – led the way on many education reforms. But getting a quality education shouldn’t depend on which state a student lives in. And with forty ESEA waivers and counting, there is probably more variation in quality between states than at any point since NCLB became law. This incoherence will not clear without stronger policymaking at the national level.

The Student Success Act won’t get us there. But since it also won’t get past the Senate or President Obama, the good news is that there is be plenty of time to write an education law that expects more, not less, from our education system.

E-Rate Reform: What’s On the Menu?

July 18, 2013
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For many schools around the country, Internet connectivity has not yet reached the place where the greatest benefits would be realized: in classrooms. While the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has made progress over the past decade in helping to connect schools, its E-Rate Program has fallen short on connecting classrooms with high-speed broadband. To address this shortcoming, the FCC will discuss modernization of the E-Rate Program at its monthly open meeting this Friday.
The E-Rate Program, formally known as the Schools and Libraries Program, is one of four initiatives financed through the FCC’s Universal Service Fund. The program was enacted through the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which tasked the FCC with providing affordable telecommunications, Internet access, and internal connections to schools and libraries, with an emphasis on connecting rural and low-income communities.
On Tuesday, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai presented his vision for E-Rate reform during an event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). His remarks underscored several key differences between his and President Obama’s priorities for program reform. Going into this Friday’s meeting, the White House’s ConnectED initiative – which bears a strong resemblance to the E-Rate 2.0 proposal put forward by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in April – will provide a counterpoint to Commissioner Pai’s recommendations.
During Tuesday’s event, Commissioner Pai’s remarks focused on ”structural problems” with the E-Rate program that must be first addressed in order to better serve schools and students:
  1. Delay: For schools, the filing process can take months, the administration of funds years, and the appeals process decades to complete.
  2. Paperwork: The application process is arduous and is often a strong deterrent for schools that would benefit from the program.
  3. Complexity: For schools that undertake the application process, the regulations are so complex that it often requires hiring “E-Rate Consultants” to manage the process.
  4. Outdated prioritization: The tiered priority levels for the program prioritize services such as voice telephone service over classroom connectivity.
  5. Poor incentive structure: The range of discount rates encourages those with the highest discount rates to overspend on services, rather than efficiently spend funds.
To address these issues, Commissioner Pai proposed a five-point reform agenda that focuses largely on structural changes to the program:
  1. Simplify the program: Create a single “menu” of options, rather than tiered priority levels for funding, with a more streamlined application process.
  2. Fairer distribution of funding: Fund the program on a per-student basis, providing an additional “bump” in resources to rural and poor students.
  3. Focus on ‘next generation’ technology for kids: Focus on provision of broadband services for instructional facilities, as opposed to telecommunications and non-instructional facility services.
  4. More transparency and accountability: Require matching funds – $1 from schools for every $3 provided through E-Rate – as opposed to providing discount rates between 20 and 90 percent.
  5. Fiscal responsibility: On the back-end, require reporting on services provided to students.
Commissioner Pai is right to emphasize a “student-centered approach” to reform. But while his remarks highlight a number of inefficiencies in the program structure that do not create the best outcomes for students, his proposed solutions could also create further complications. For example, his proposed move to per-pupil basis – with an additional “bump” for rural and low-income students – may sound like a reasonable way to achieve equitable funding, that structure may prove ineffective in achieving equitable service.
He also left out some critical details, like what’s on the menu? Commissioner Pai proposed a single “menu” of options and said they should be student-centered, focusing almost exclusively on broadband services. Alternatively, both times he mentioned fiber his comments were disparaging and negative. Moving forward with 21st century service, will the E-Rate program support 21st century infrastructure? 
The event raised a number of important issues with the E-Rate Program as it stands, but the current array of proposed solutions are far from perfect. Hopefully the FCC will take a positive step on Friday toward bringing this program into the 21st century.

Student Success Act Superlatives: the Best (and Worst) Additions to the House NCLB Overhaul

July 17, 2013

Following the world’s speediest markup, the House of Representatives could begin floor debate on the Student Success Act, the House Republican proposal to rewrite No Child Left Behind (NCLB), tomorrow. That would mark the first time (ever!) that an NCLB reauthorization bill has reached the floor in either chamber of Congress. However, the chances of the House proposal making it out of the Senate and to the President’s desk are non-existent. No Democrats supported the bill in committee, adamantly opposing its changes to accountability, school improvement, and funding requirements. And while every Republican on the committee supported the legislation, it may not be conservative enough for many members of the House Republican caucus – who would like to add Title I vouchers to the bill, eliminate the teacher evaluation provisions, and further diminish the role of the federal government.

Alyson Klein over at PoliticsK-12 has a super-detailed rundown of many of the 74 amendments offered to the legislation. It’s well worth a read. While many of these amendments are likely to be ruled out of order by the House Rules Committee this afternoon, they are still an interesting – and sometimes amusing – read. Here are my picks among them for Student Success Act Superlatives.

Most obvious pet project: Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) would like to add a grant program to support female students in higher education taking STEM courses serving as mentors to high school girls enrolled in STEM dual enrollment programs.Science, it’s a girl thing!

Most thrifty: This one’s a tie between Paul Broun (R-GA) and John Culberson (R-TX). Because the Student Success Act would consolidate or eliminate over 70 programs at the Department of Education, Broun would require the Secretary of Education not only to report how many Department employees are terminated, but also their average salary (in addition to the salaries of remaining employees). Further, Broun wants an additional 5% reduction in Department staff after the program consolidation. Ouch.

Culberson’s amendment uses a different tactic to rein in spending. While limiting the Secretary from placing conditions on states to receive federal money, Culberson would also clarify that states could reject federal grants. The rejected funds would then go toward paying down the national debt. Given state reliance on federal education money, I doubt this is the most efficient strategy to tackle the debt problem.

Least changed since 2001: Chris Gibson (R-NY) and Mark Takano (D-CA) have a rare, bipartisan amendment to change the requirements for student assessment… to those that were in place before NCLB in 2001. This would mean students would be tested by grade spans in reading and math (grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12). While high school students are only tested once under current law, the amendment could eliminate annual testing in grades 3-8. If successful, say goodbye to loads of student performance data the public has come to rely on and any hope of measuring individual student growth.

Most popular: Maintenance of effort definitely has the Democrats’ votes for prom queen. Four amendments to restore the funding requirement (or delay its elimination) were offered, more than any other single issue.

Most likely to succeed? Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) wants to add Title I funding portability, allocating funds not on the basis of a district’s concentration of poor students, but instead directly following eligible children to the schools where they enroll. Students could attend their assigned public school, a charter school, or an out-of-district school if the state opts-in to the program. In an appearance at a Washington, D.C. charter school, Cantor said he believes his amendment (and the overall bill) could gain bipartisan support. But given reaction to the amendment and the fact that Senate Democrats voted down a similar amendment to their proposal, Cantor’s optimism is more comical than anything.

Class Clown: Speaking of amusing, Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO) would like to clarify that the “sense of the Congress” is that Education Secretary Arne Duncan – through Race to the Top and NCLB waivers – “coerced” states to adopt common standards and assessments. Never mind the obvious lack of fact-checking (Alabama, Alaska, Minnesota, Utah, and Virginia have received waivers without adopting the standards and/or joining one of the testing consortia). In pointing out the harmful influence of the federal government on states, the amendment clarifies:

“The Race to the Top Assessment grants awarded to the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SMARTER Balance) initiated the development of Common Core State Standards aligned assessments that will, in turn, inform and ultimately influence kindergarten through 12th-grade curriculum and instructional materials.”

And this is an argument against the consortia’s efforts? Because curriculum and instructional materials informed by rigorous, internationally-benchmarked standards sound like a fabulous idea!

Biggest nerd: Disappointing robots everywhere, Tony Cárdenas (D-CA) withdrew an amendment that would have added computer coding as an official “critical foreign language” in the bill.

Stay tuned to Ed Money Watch for continuing coverage of NCLB reauthorization and the Student Success Act (and for more on what the proposal actually does, make sure to download our side-by-side cheat sheet here).

The Way We Talk: Professionalism

July 16, 2013
The Way We Talk

This is the first in a series of posts reflecting on terminology pervading today’s polarizing debates about American education. In each post, we’ll ask how various buzzwords—“professionalism,” “accountability,” and the like—influence the conversations we have. What are the strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots that come with framing our arguments in each of these terms? The hope is that assessing the implications of the way we talk will prompt more productive discussions about improving PreK-12 education.


In a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Harvard Education Professor Jal Mehta argues that recent attempts at education reform have failed because they emphasize “teacher accountability” instead of “teacher professionalism.” He says that the reformers’ laudable goal—“consistent, high-level performance across the school system”—is stymied by inadequate attention to systemic obstacles. Mehta warns that test-based school accountability provisions and teacher performance pay destroy morale. In addition, they can polarize discussions of the potential and limits of teachers’ influence on their students’ academic outcomes. Mehta argues that reformers’ focus on accountability comes “at the expense of progress on” other elements of teaching as a “professional field.”

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