Special Education, Head Start, and Higher Education programs will be among the top education priorities when the 108th Congress convenes in January.
But before lawmakers turn their attention to these areas, they will first need to resolve a host of potentially thorny domestic spending issues, including several on education. Congress faces a potential showdown over spending ceilings set by the White House, having failed to advance a number of nondefense appropriations bills in the previous session, with education looming large among them. The outcome and tone of these proceedings is expected to largely set the tone for other education business.
Both the House and Education Committees have already held numerous hearings on different aspects of special education, and now aim to proceed with the business of reauthorizing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (see November issue for additional details). With an increase in federal special education spending widely anticipated as an outcome of these proceedings, some researchers have pointed to the need to ensure that the new funding does not result in an increase in the number of children erroneously labeled as disabled by school districts seeking increased revenue.
With its scheduled review of the Higher Education Act, Congress will consider the effects of rising college costs on access to postsecondary education. It is also expected to examine student financial assistance programs with an eye toward reform. The proceedings will likely also provide lawmakers with an opportunity to consider changes concerning teacher preparation and certification.
Head Start is also scheduled for reauthorization in 2003. House and Senate Education Committee leaders have expressed an interest in strengthening the academic aspects of Head Start, with an emphasis on results similar to that which formed the basis for the No Child Left Behind Act.
Dr. Wade Horn, Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services for Children and Families, testified before the House Education Committee in July on reform possibilities for Head Start, which last year was budgeted to serve over 900,000 children. “Head Start needs to focus more on such indicators of early literacy as children’s knowledge of letters,” Horn suggested. He described a reorientation of the program to focus on better preparing children to enter kindergarten with stronger literacy skills.
ED Pursues Management Improvements
One area where the Bush Administration has had its greatest impact on business at the federal Department of Education is business itself, namely financial management. The extent of this impact will be known more fully this January, when independent auditors issue their opinion on whether improvements in the Department’s financial statements are enough to earn a clean annual audit. The Department has failed its last 4 yearly audits, receiving “qualified opinions” citing a variety of problems.
In testimony before the House Education Committee in 2001, the General Accounting Office described “severe weaknesses” in the department’s internal financial controls. At that time, Education Secretary Rod Paige established a Management Improvement Team including senior Department officials and career managers to fix the problems and meet President Bush’s mandate for a clean audit.
In a status report released October 30, the team described changes made to date, including requiring executives and managers to adhere to performance contracts with clear individual job performance expectations, and ending abuse of purchase and travel credit cards by issuing specific penalties to be taken against employees.
Rees Selected to Head Office of Innovation
In September, Secretary Paige announced the appointment of former SRN contributing editor Nina Shokraii Rees to serve as Deputy Undersecretary of Education and head of the department’s new Office of Innovation and Improvement. Rees earned a reputation as an influential school reformer during her tenure as senior education analyst for the Heritage Foundation, and subsequently served as a domestic policy advisor to Vice President Cheney.
The new office will consolidate programs such as charter schools, public school choice and magnet schools. According to Secretary Paige, it will also work with other department offices to coordinate the supplemental services and public school choice provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Don Soifer is Executive Vice President of the Lexington Institute. His email address is email@example.com.
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