New Congress Sets Priorities

Published January 1, 2003

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.

The House and Senate education committees have already held numerous hearings on different aspects of special education, and they now aim to proceed with the business of reauthorizing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. (See “Presidential Commission Reports on Special Education,” School Reform News, September 2002.) With an increase in federal special education spending widely anticipated, some researchers have expressed concern that the new funding not result in an increase in the number of children erroneously labeled as disabled by school districts seeking increased revenue.

Higher Education on the Agenda

With its scheduled review of the Higher Education Act, Congress will consider the effect rising college costs have on access to postsecondary education. This is expected to lead to an examination of student financial assistance programs and a discussion of possible reforms. The proceedings will likely provide lawmakers with an opportunity to consider changes addressing teacher preparation and certification as well.

A Head Start in Literacy?

Head Start also is scheduled for reauthorization in 2003. House and Senate Education Committee leaders have expressed an interest in strengthening the academic aspects of the program, with an emphasis on results similar to the orientation that forms 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 more than 900,000 children. He described a reorientation of the program to focus on better preparing children to enter kindergarten with stronger literacy skills.

“Head Start needs to focus more on such indicators of early literacy as children’s knowledge of letters,” Horn suggested.

DoEd Pursues Management Improvements

One area where the Bush administration has had its greatest impact on the way the federal Department of Education (DoEd) does business is in improved financial management of the department. The extent of this impact will be known more fully this month, when independent auditors issue their opinion on whether these improvements have been sufficient to earn DoEd a clean annual audit. In its last four yearly audits, the department received only “qualified opinions” that cited 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 that included 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, 2002, 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, Paige announced the appointment of former School Reform News 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 Dick Cheney.

The new office will consolidate programs for public school choice, charter schools, and magnet schools. According to Paige, it also will 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 protected].