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New Priorities for Federal Grant Competitions Expands the Definition of “Promoting Diversity” in Schools

On June 24, the Federal Register published Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s proposed supplemental priorities for use in discretionary grant programs. The 15 priorities are intended to shape the development of federal grant competitions and replace the previous supplemental list established in 2010. “The new priorities and definitions reflect the lessons learned from implementing discretionary grant programs using the 2010 Supplemental Priorities, our current policy objectives, and emerging needs in education” states Duncan’s notice.

The notice includes new points of emphases in promoting student achievement and college and career outcomes. Personalized learning, which has been a central point of the Race to the Top district competitions, is its own priority, as is the development of non-cognitive skills that promote student engagement and motivation. Three of the proposed priorities also address access and completion of postsecondary education and job readiness. Meanwhile, an area of focus that was present in the 2010 priorities on “building capacity for systemic continuous improvement” has been removed. This included priorities for projects using data-based decision-making, showing evidence of effectiveness, and increasing productivity.

Other areas of the 2010 priorities have been incorporated as revisions. Parent, family, and community engagement was previously addressed under improving school climate and behavioral supports, but it is a separate priority in the new list. Improving teacher and principal effectiveness was also separated in order to allow projects to provide more targeted support to each group.

Another priority that was revised from the 2010 version was on “Promoting Diversity”. The Poverty & Race Research Action Council (PRRAC) writes that since its inclusion in the 2010 priorities, the diversity priority “has not appeared in most competitive grant funding notices, with the exception of the charter school notices, where it has been a fairly weak incentive, as compared to program incentives to maximize the number of low income children.” It cites examples in which economic factors have superseded racial diversity in importance – a notice for the “Charter Schools Program Grants for Replication and Expansion of High-Quality Charter Schools” assigned twice as many points to applications serving a student body that is at least 60% low-income than to those that met the diversity priority. Furthermore, the 2010 diversity priority has been absent from Investing in Innovation, various Race to the Top competitions, the School Improvement Grants Program, and the ESEA waiver process. Only the Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP) has highlighted diversity, but with smaller budgets compared to Race to the Top and the Charter Schools Program, its effectiveness is limited.

Such a focus on socioeconomic factors was reflected in June’s updated priorities, and increasing diversity in the K-12 sector now includes decreasing racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic isolation. However, members of the National Coalition on School Diversity (NCSD), including PRRAC and MSA, expressed concern that this may shift attention away from racial diversity in favor of only socioeconomic diversity. “[E]fforts to promote racial and economic diversity should go hand in hand. We think it is essential that the Department keep these closely related concepts linked in the final priorities, and not permit grantees to avoid racial diversity in favor of economic integration alone,” they wrote in a letter to Secretary Duncan that outlines their comments and proposed changes to the new priority’s text.

The concerning excerpt in the recent proposal states that projects must decrease “the racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic isolation of students”, so they recommend that the wording be changed from or to and to indicate the salience of both racial and economic segregation. “Economic diversity is related to and complementary to racial integration in schools, but the two goals are not interchangeable,” writes PRAAC in an email update. Another suggested edit is to include the adverb “significantly” for increasing diversity and decreasing isolation to require from projects more than just a minimal effort to fulfill the priority. Additionally, the letter proposes that the priority state the reduction of segregation as an explicitly stated criterion. Such changes to bring precision to the text would ensure that it is effective in promoting diversity.

The Federal Register is no longer accepting comments regarding the proposed priorities, but the full list may be found here [http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2014-06-24/pdf/2014-14671.pdf]

FCC Moves to Modernize E-Rate Program and Increase Wi-Fi Connectivity in Schools and Libraries

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved a modernization plan for the federal E-Rate program, which provides financial support for communication services and Internet access in schools and public libraries. The modernization, led by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, is the first update of the E-Rate program since its creation in 1996 as a part of the Telecommunications Act. It has been responsible for drastically raising the percentage of classrooms that are now connected to the internet from 14% to 94% and the percentage of public libraries that offer public internet access to 98%.

While E-Rate is widely considered a success, it has not kept pace with the speed of technological change. Today, three out of five schools lack the Wi-Fi that is required by modern educational tools, such as laptops and tablets. For instance, only 5% of schools and 1% of libraries have received E-Rate support to install Wi-Fi, according to Chairman Wheeler. Furthermore, half of our schools rely on slow internal wiring that cannot carry data at today’s broadband speeds.

The E-Rate modernization has three main components to meet modern connectivity demands:

1) Close the Wi-Fi gap. The reform commits at least $1 billion in 2015 and again in 2016 for technological assistance that will allow schools and libraries to transition to high-speed broadband services and away from older dial-up and Ethernet connections. It will also ensure funding predictability for widespread distribution of support, particularly for schools in rural and high-poverty areas.

2) Make E-Rate dollars go further. The program updates will focus on processes that will lower prices and increase transparency about how program aid is spent. Additionally, for every dollar that is spent by our nation’s poorest schools on Wi-Fi, E-Rate promises to also spend four.

3) Simplify the application process to increase schools’ and districts’ access to the program. This includes processes for multi-year applications and discount calculations and expedited reviews of all applications.

The program updates that were passed on July 11 differ slightly from Chairman Wheeler’s original proposal. In the face of opposition from two Republican commissioners and education groups, funding for Wi-Fi infrastructure and upgrades is ensured for only two years rather than five. The commission also did not approve an increase of the cap of available Wi-Fi funding that was sought by many stakeholders.

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), an education-tech nonprofit, and the National Education Association (NEA) expressed their support for the E-Rate modernization, but remain wary of the amount of funding that will be available to schools through the program. “Shifting our goals to establish Wi-Fi in targeted school districts, without increasing the cap, could undermine the historical importance and significance of the E-Rate Program,” wrote former NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) also pointed to the E-Rate funding cap in their analysis of the program with Education SuperHighway. They cited that despite the $2 billion promised to Wi-Fi connectivity for the next two years, evidence shows that the program is still billions of dollars short in meeting schools’ actual needs. Additionally, Manish Naik, the Manager of Legislative Services for the Council of the Great City Schools, argued in Urban Educator that the 4 to 1 matching program will double the financial cost of connectivity for high poverty districts rather than help them.

Nonetheless, the E-Rate modernization remains important in addressing the connectivity issues faced by schools. “No modern business expects to function without access to high-speed internet. So why should we expect it of our schools?” said Bob Wise, the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. “The E-Rate program has been remarkably effective, but like an old cellphone, it is in need of an upgrade. In today’s world, reliable Wi-Fi is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”

To learn more about the changes to the E-Rate program please read this FCC Fact Sheet.

Civil Rights and Equity in Education: Comprehensive Survey Shows Wide Disparities

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released the results of its first comprehensive look at civil rights data in public education in nearly 15 years. The Civil Rights Data Collection consists of information from all of the nation’s 97,000 public schools and 16,500 school districts. This data was collected during the 2011-2012 school year and allows the department to enforce civil rights laws and ascertain whether students have equal access to educational opportunities. For the first time, it also includes data on early education and school discipline practices.

The survey is not flawless because schools and districts self-report this information; nevertheless, the comprehensiveness of the survey is helpful. Its findings paint a bleak picture of educational equity in the United States. It shows that many schools and districts lack basic preschool programs, core courses in math and science (such as algebra, chemistry, biology, physics, and calculus), and in the schools that do offer advanced classes, the number of minority students taking these classes remains very low.

"This data collection shines a clear, unbiased light on places that are delivering on the promise of an equal education for every child and places where the largest gaps remain. In all, it is clear that the United States has a great distance to go to meet our goal of providing opportunities for every student to succeed," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The report has many important findings:

  • Unequal Access to Preschool Programs – 40% of the nation’s school districts do not offer preschool programs. Extensive research shows that quality early childhood education is a predictor of later academic success, yet much of the country does not provide this vital opportunity to children. Of the districts that do offer preschool programs, 57% of them are only half day programs. This deprives children of valuable learning time and causes difficulties for working parents.
  • Suspension and Retention Rates for Minorities - Black children make up 18% of the preschool student body, yet they account for 42% of suspensions, and while boys comprise of 54% of the preschool enrollment, they make up 79% percent of suspended students. Minority females are also more likely to be suspended than white females. Once children reach kindergarten, Native Hawaiian, other Pacific Islander, and Alaskan Native children are held back at twice the rate of their white peers. This is an indication that without high quality preschool education these minority children enter elementary school unprepared for kindergarten.
  • Lack of Courses Needed for College - Only 50% of U.S. high schools offer calculus, and other courses needed for high-demand STEM jobs, such as physics and chemistry. These courses are often prerequisites for college admissions and students that don’t have access to these classes have their college options severely limited. Over 70% of white students attend schools with a full range of math and science courses, but only 47% of Native American and Alaskan-Native, 57% of black students, and 67% of Hispanic students have this same opportunity. Minorities are also underrepresented among students who take gifted and talented or Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Of students taking at least one AP course, 37% of them are Black and 5% of them are English language learners. Furthermore, only 1% of the English language learners who take the AP test receive a qualifying score of 3 or higher.
  • Distribution of qualified teachers and school counselors - Black students are more than four times as likely as their white peers to attend a school where less than 80% of teachers meet certification requirements. Hispanic students are twice as likely to attend such a school. Without highly qualified teachers, especially in key subjects, students have difficulty mastering the material needed to prepare them for college. Moreover, only one in five high schools has school counselors on staff. This hampers the ability of students to understand their career and college options after high school.

You can review all of the data collection findings on the Office for Civil Rights website. The department has also created an online database that allows you to search through this information by state, school, and district. In addition, the Assistant Secretary for the Office for Civil Rights, Catherine Lhamon will discuss the Civil Rights Data Collection during our national conference in Hartford on Saturday, May 17.

President's FY 2015 Budget Makes Critical Investments in Education, But Neglects Magnet School Funding

President Obama released his FY 2015 budget laying out the administration’s funding prerogatives for the next fiscal year beginning October 1, 2014. Like every presidential budget, this is a political document that sets the stage for what the president envisions for the country. Ultimately, it is up to Congress to review the budget and decide how to allocate funds for all federal programs through the appropriations process. The entire budget is approximately $3.9 trillion and includes $564 billion in deficit spending, which adds to our accumulating national debt. The White House projects, however, that the deficit will be 3.1 percent of GDP in 2015, which is a six-year low.

To support our nation’s educational system, the president’s budget would allocate $68.8 billion for the U.S. Department of Education or a $1.3 billion increase above FY 2014. This was one of only two cabinet agencies to receive a funding increase in the budget. A majority of the department’s funding, approximately three-fourths, will go toward financial aid for college students, special education programs, and disadvantaged students through Title I grants. The president’s budget also makes continued investments in signature programs, such as Race to the Top (RTT), Investing in Innovation (i3), School Improvement Grants (SIG), Promise Neighborhoods, and the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF).

Unfortunately, the president's budget does not provide additional support for the Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP), which helps schools districts create magnet programs that promote school integration and systemic educational reforms. It also fails to provide relief from cuts that were implemented to the program over the last few years through sequestration. If enacted, the budget would provide only $91.6 million for MSAP, which is down from the 2010 level of $100 million. Read MSA’s statement opposing these cuts

On a more positive note, there are other proposals in the president’s budget that may help magnet schools. The White House proposes $300 million for a new iteration of Race to the Top that will focus on Equity and Opportunity. If enacted, it would create incentives for states and local school districts to identify and close opportunity and achievement gaps among minority and disadvantaged students. Funds would support strategies that mitigate the effects of concentrated poverty, such as expanded learning time, access to rigorous coursework, and comprehensive student supports. Grants would also help enhance data systems that allow states and school districts to focus on the greatest disparities and invest in strong teachers and leaders in high-need schools.

The president’s budget calls for $150 million for a new High School Redesign initiative to help schools implement new curricula and instruction that prepares high school students for college and in-demand careers. This program will also support partnerships between high schools and employers. This year, the administration made an initial investment towards this effort through the Youth Career Connect Grant program. Magnet schools are leaders in developing these types of partnerships and should view this as future opportunity.

The White House budget proposes $170 million to help transform Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S.T.E.M) instruction and to meet the president's goal of recruiting 100,000 S.T.E.M. teachers over the next ten years. President Obama calls for more streamlined S.T.E.M. funds that can be used to improve S.T.E.M. education at all levels and the inclusion of more minorities and women in S.T.E.M. professions. The budget would also invest in S.T.E.M. innovation networks to connect school districts with local, regional and national resources and a new S.T.E.M. Master Teacher Corps.

Additionally, President Obama's budget allocates funds to make high-quality pre-kindergarten education available to all four year olds from low and middle income families. It calls for $1.3 billion in mandatory spending next year and $75 billion over the next decade. Funds will be used to create quality preschools and expanded full-day kindergarten programs through federal and state partnerships. Preschool Development grants will also receive $500 million in the budget as well.

To train teachers to use new technology in the classroom, the president’s FY 2015 budget allocates $200 million for ConnectEDucators. This money would fund formula-based state leadership grants to support the transition to digital learning as well as competitive 3-year grants to assist school districts with technology integration and instruction plans. The Department of Education will give priority to applicants who plan to work with other school districts and local or national organizations.

To learn more about the president’s budget visit the U.S. Department of Education’s budget webpage. It includes detailed funding information for all federal education programs and provides explanations for all the president’s new initiatives.

Magnet School Funding in Jeopardy

Congress passed legislation that will provide funds to all federal agencies and discretionary grant programs for the remainder of FY 2014. The passage of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 will prevent another government shutdown and hopefully marks a major turning point in a budget process that has been plagued by extreme partisan gridlock over the last few years.

The funding bill removes a majority of the cuts that were implemented last year due to sequestration and restores $1.6 billion to the U.S. Department of Education. It replenishes funding to Title I and IDEA grants, GEAR UP, Career Tech Ed programs, and Charter School grants. It also fully restores the $401 million sequester cut to Head Start, and includes $500 million for Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships. For a full break down of the education budget see this chart prepared by the Committee for Education Funding.

Unfortunately, the Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP), which was cut by $4.8 million last year due to sequestration, was not one of the programs selected for relief from this harmful policy. This neglect prevents many well deserving school districts from participating in MSAP. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education was forced to reduce the number of MSAP awards to only 27 school districts, or eleven less grantees from the previous grant cycle. Only a decade ago 50 school districts were able to receive MSAP support. 

With schools more segregated today than 30 years ago, MSAP funds are more critical than ever - and they are the ONLY federal funds that support integration, equity, innovation and excellence. You know the potential of students who attend schools that accentuate and nurture their interests, talents, and passions. You see the power of school diversity and theme-based education on a daily basis. Act now to help ensure this critical funding for districts is not lost.

Over the next few months Congress will work to formulate a new budget for FY 2015. Help us build support for our nation's magnet schools by visiting our Grassroots Action Center and submitting a message to your elected officials. 

A Seat at the Negotiation Table

Representatives from over 100 national education organizations visited key budget negotiators in Washington, DC last week to deliver stuffed turkeys with the message, "Carve Turkeys Not Education this Thanksgiving." Magnet Schools of America was proud to join the Committee for Education Funding in this effort to protect education funding and repeal sequestration.

Over the next few weeks, congressional negotiators from both political parties must reach a final budget agreement to keep the government from shutting down again early next year. A special bipartisan conference committee has been created to lead this charge and must report a budget by December 13. It has met two times over the last few weeks, but fundamental disagreements over the size of the budget and the fate of sequestration are stymieing discussions.

The budget proposed by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives is approximately $91 billion less than the one supported by the President and Senate Democrats. It would potentially cut the U.S. Department of Education's budget by approximately 17% and would be extremely painful for most programs, including the Magnet Schools Assistance Program. The alternative budget proposed in the U.S. Senate does not propose these cuts and would restore funding to many programs.

Unless an agreement can be reached, the automatic spending cuts that were implemented earlier this year through sequestration will remain effective for the next nine years! This means the U.S. Department of Education and all its grant programs will continue to be frozen at current post-sequester levels. These cuts occur at a time when the student population continues to grow and the expectations being placed on schools and teachers are becoming even greater. 

A new report released by NDD United called Faces of Austerity paints a very clear picture of the negative impact budget cuts and sequestration is having on Americans. A national survey of school administrators also shows that sequestration is disproportionately hurting school districts that rely more heavily on federal dollars. For example:

  • More than half of local education agencies (LEAs) in 21 states had operating budgets in which the federal share of revenues wasabove the national average (11.8 percent). 
  • More than half of LEAs in 14 states had operating budgets in which the federal share was more than 15 percent.

"We have absorbed the previous cuts, but this has led to significant decreases in resources for our neediest students. Additional cuts will negatively impact our ability to adequately serve students moving forward," said one administrator who was surveyed.

Magnet Schools of America is encouraging all its members to contact their congressional representatives through our Grassroots Action Center to ask them to protect education funding. We are also interested in learning how budget cuts and sequestration have impacted your magnet schools. Please email your stories to: john.laughner@magnet.edu

Budget Impasse Forces Government Shutdown

This week the federal government was forced to close its doors for the first time since 1995 because the U.S. Congress could not agree on a budget for the new fiscal year that began October 1. So what does this mean for the education community?

We'll first off; more than 90 percent of the U.S. Department of Education's 4,000 employees are now furloughed and prohibited from going to work. This includes employees in regional offices across the nation. If you are attempting to contact one of the department’s many offices you may be frustrated by your inability to get a live person on the phone for assistance. The department's website will also not be updated during the shutdown and the Institute for Education Sciences, the main research arm for the Department of Education is offline.

If your school or district is slated to receive a portion of the overall $22 billion in Title I, IDEA, or Career and Technical Education formula grants scheduled to be disbursed this week, those funds will still go out the door because they are forward funded from the last fiscal year. Money from competitive grant programs such as Race-to-the-Top, Promise Neighborhoods, and i3 is also available until the end of the year.

Schools or districts that were recently notified they will receive a Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP) grant this year will not be immediately impacted by the shutdown as long as it ends soon. Generally, funds for the program are not disbursed until late October or early November. If the budget impasse lasts longer than a few days or weeks, this could change.

According to guidance released by the U.S. Department of Education, a government shutdown lasting longer than a week, "would severely curtail the cash flow to school districts, colleges and universities, and vocational rehabilitation agencies that depend on the Department’s funds to support their services.  For example, many school districts receive more than 20 percent of their funds from Department-funded programs."

Currently, the situation in Washington looks pretty bleak. Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are refusing to pass a funding bill unless some of the major provisions of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare are delayed for an additional year. This is unacceptable to the Democrats who control the U.S. Senate and the President has threatened to veto such legislation. It is very likely that the government will remain closed until October 17 when Congress will have to reach an agreement on extending the nation's borrowing authority or debt ceiling. It remains unclear whether the two parties will reach a breakthrough before this next fiscal deadline.

For more information on the government shutdown read this Education Week article.

Why Hartford?

When thinking of places to learn about the opportunities presented by student diversity, Hartford, Connecticut may not come immediately to mind, but it should. The events that have taken place in Hartford starting with a 1989 state court case, have led to one of the most successful remedies for the de facto segregation that remained after the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education. While by no means perfect, the success in Hartford provides a wealth of information and ideas, and can serve as a great resource to help combat this problem that still exists in many metropolitan cities and suburbs around the country. Magnet Schools of America's newest board member, Susan Eaton, recently published a report about the success of Hartford's interdistrict magnet programs. Below are some of the highlights of her research.

The Brown v. Board of Education decision paved the way for the removal of enforced and intentional segregation, particularly in the South. However, after the ruling, there remained de facto segregation, predominantly in the North, which was a lot harder for civil rights lawyers to remove. In an attempt to remove this sort of segregation in Hartford and the surrounding region, in 1989 a racially diverse group of 19 schoolchildren and their parents jointly filed a lawsuit claiming that racial and class segregation in the region's public schools denied students the "substantially equal education" that was required by the state's Constitution, the case was Sheff v. O'Neill. Sheff's lawyers argued that "the condition of racial and ethnic segregation cut off white students and students of color from necessary, vital exposure to other cultures, experiences, and knowledge. Racial and ethnic segregation's attendant-concentrated poverty- the lawyers argued, “overwhelmed even the best Hartford educators who worked in schools with hallmark symptoms of profound, chronic institutional disadvantage: constant disruptions, neglect, instability, and stress."

In 1996, Connecticut’s highest court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. The court found that the school district’s borders themselves, which lined up with established racially segregated housing patterns, had created race and class isolation. The court ordered lawmakers to find a solution to reduce the racial and ethnic segregation in Greater Hartford’s public schools.  It turned out that the district borders would prove difficult to change, but over time schools were built and programs were created to make crossing those borders easier.

Many people doubted whether many white families in the suburbs, with access to some of the best schools in the state, would bus their kids into Hartford, regardless of how good the new schools might be. However, those who doubted the program were greatly mistaken. Magnet schools and the Open Choice program are so popular among both urban and suburban parents that demand for them is not being met. As of summer 2012, there were 31 interdistrict magnet schools in the Greater Hartford region, enrolling about 13,000 students. The Open Choice program, which provides transportation for children who live in Hartford to attend suburban schools, enrolls about 1,700 students. Despite the impressive enrollment numbers, data shows that the schools only meet 72% of the demand among Hartford families, and that demand continues to grow.

The increasing demand for these programs is for good reason. A 2009 study compared students who applied to enroll in Connecticut’s magnet schools and were not selected through a blind lottery, and those who were selected and attended a magnet school. The study found that magnet school students who lived in urban zip codes (these students were mostly Latino or black) made greater gains and did significantly better in math and reading in high school and in reading tests in middle school. Also, suburban students (who were mostly white) who attended magnet schools outperformed their peers at traditional suburban schools. The “achievement gap” between white students and students of color also tended to be smaller in magnet schools than in traditional schools.

The study also found that students of color in magnet schools were significantly more likely to say they felt close to white students and had white friends than did students of color who did not attend magnet schools. This also held true for white students in magnet schools, showing that they were significantly more likely than their counterparts in non-magnet schools to say that they were close with students of color, and had students of color as friends.

On top of that, data from 2011 shows that, on average, the region’s 7 interdistrict magnet high schools had significantly higher graduation rates than even some of Hartford’s more affluent suburban districts.  Magnet schools also do a much better job at graduating students from families with low incomes, significantly better than some of the more affluent districts. The graduation rate for low-income students in magnets ranges anywhere from 80% to above 90%, while graduation rates of low-income students in Hartford were about 60% in 2011 and 53% in 2010.

These results are powerful, and hold parallels and lessons for cities around the country suffering from similar problems. For a more in-depth look at the success in Hartford be sure to read Susan Eaton’s piece in the Abell Report and her corresponding radio interview where she discusses the Connecticut experience and what it means for other school districts.

Immigration Bill Creates New Funding for STEM Programs

The U.S. Senate recently passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that will provide a path toward citizenship for undocumented workers or illegal immigrants by a rarely seen bipartisan vote of 68-32. While there was significant discussion surrounding the various measures put in place to physically secure the border, there is also a portion of the bill that is extremely important for the education community. Tucked away, nearly 900 pages into the 1,200 page bill, is a section about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (S.T.E.M.) education.

STEM education has been a popular topic in Washington for the past couple of years, and multiple bills were proposed during the last session of Congress that included STEM visa provisions. One of the biggest problems with STEM education has been that there has been a significant lack of U.S. graduates in STEM fields. A Microsoft study released this year found that the U.S. is on pace to graduate 50,000 students with a bachelor’s degree in computer science over the next 10 years, while jobs in that field are estimated to be twice that number.

The bill seeks to solve the short-term lack of qualified workers in STEM fields by increasing the number of H-1B visas that are available, which are generally granted to highly educated and specialized professional workers. Most H-1B visa holders typically work in STEM related fields. According to a Congressional Research Service report, in 2010 almost 91,000 H-1B workers were employed in computer-related occupations, making up 47% of all H-1B beneficiaries that year. By increasing the number of these types of visas, the hope is that the short-term needs of STEM employers can be met and these jobs can stay in the U.S., even though they won’t be filled by Americans.

Many companies, especially those in Silicon Valley, stand to benefit enormously from the increase in visas. These high tech companies argue that it is extremely costly to retrain older Americans with the skills needed for new and emerging jobs, and that the country is simply not producing enough younger Americans with the skills needed for these in-demand jobs. Increasing H-1B visas will give these companies access to more highly qualified candidates with the desired skillset. However, this increase in H-1B visas has drawn considerable criticism from many groups, including labor unions, which state that companies simply want to depress wages and hire less costly temporary workers from overseas.

Despite the logical arguments on both sides, reality is more complicated. A recent study  by the Brookings Institution found that in the top ten cities with the highest number of H-1B visa holders, college educated Americans in these cities are, in fact, no more likely to be unemployed. Another study actually suggests that the growth of foreign workers in American companies actually helps younger Americans, and has no noticeable consequences (good or bad) for older Americans. “In the short run, we don’t really find any adverse or superpositive effect on the employment of Americans,” said William R. Kerr, the Harvard business professor who conducted the study. So while the claims that foreign workers on H-1B visas displace American workers from those jobs may be exaggerated, so may be the claims by companies that are claiming a worker shortage. Most H-1B visa holders actually hold entry-level positions, and many economists say this serves to keep wages down.

While the debate about the effects of the expansion of the H-1B visa program will be prolonged and complicated, the immigration bill provides significant provisions to expand STEM education in the U.S. and allows for more of these jobs to be occupied by Americans in the future. The bill provides $200 million (though some advocates say it could be as much as $700 million) for investments in STEM education generated from fees from the H-1B visas. These funds can be used for a wide array of investments to further STEM education at both the higher education and K-12 level.

For example, the National Science Foundation (NSF) would be able to use some of the funds from the visa fees to provide scholarships to low-income students pursuing STEM degrees, as well as provide funds for loan repayment or forgiveness for these students. The NSF would also be authorized to use some of the funds to improve teacher training in STEM subjects, support professional development of K-12 STEM teachers in the use of technology in the classroom, and establish partnerships with institutions of higher learning and professional organizations. The bill also establishes a ‘STEM education and Training Account’, which disburses funds to states and territories for the purposes of expanding STEM education programs around the country.

The whole goal of these provisions is to instill an appreciation and fascination with STEM subjects in kids while they are still young, as well as provide them with a high quality STEM education. By doing this, as these students begin to apply to college, more and more of them will pursue degrees in STEM subjects. This is an investment whose return will not be visible for many years, but it is one worth making nonetheless. Ensuring that our students are not passed up for jobs here in the U.S. needs to be a national priority, and this increase in investment, especially at the K-12 level, is a crucial step in the right direction.

While this legislation has surpassed a major hurdle in the U.S. Senate, it must still be passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, which is controlled by the Republican Party. The Speaker of the House, John Boehner, said his chamber would not consider and vote on the Senate bill, and instead will work on separate legislation that reflects the, “will of our majority and the will of the American people."

Congressional Republicans have already expressed opposition to the Senate bill because it would grant illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship, which they believe encourages further illegal immigration.
Supporters of the Senate bill consider this provision a crucial part of the legislation.  As the demographic makeup of the U.S. becomes increasingly diverse, segments of the electorate, especially Hispanic voters will hold more sway in elections putting greater pressure on both parties to reach some sort of agreement on immigration reform, even if that means handing the president another legislative victory.

Senate Takes First Stab at ESEA Reauthorization 

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee approved the Strengthening America’s Schools Act, a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind. The bill was proposed by committee Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and had the support of all Democrats on the committee, but no Republicans. The ranking Republican, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, instead proposed his own alternative bill, which was voted down on a party-line vote. Check out this chart comparing the two bills and how they would change the current law. The Harkin bill would reauthorize the Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP), and also add magnet schools as an acceptable restart strategy for low-performing schools. Read MSA’s statement of support for the legislation here.

The hearing tone echoed the partisan nature of the two competing bills and almost every amendment either passed or failed along party lines. As Sen. Harkin said, “I think what we’ve seen is: There are differences on both sides...” but “That’s what makes for a vibrant democracy.” While many differences remain between the Democrats and Republicans in terms of policy, one thing that both sides agree on is where the bill should go from here. Both Harkin and Alexander said that they would like to see the bill advance to the floor this year. 

This is the second attempt by the committee in the past two years to renew ESEA. The last attempt took place in the fall of 2011, but never made it to the floor, despite having support from three Republicans. One difference between this attempt and the attempt in 2011 was the amount of energy, and in fact, the number of senators in the room. The attendance of the senators became such an issue, that before the lunch break on the second day of committee markup, Sen. Harkin actually yelled at Senate staffers, telling them to make sure their bosses were back after lunch since only five senators were present at the time, not close to a quorum for a vote. 

During the markup, there was some lively debate on the amendments. Most notably, one proposed by Sen. Alexander that would have removed “comparability” language from the bill, and instead would have allowed Title I dollars for disadvantaged kids to follow them to the public school of their choosing. Salary comparability is way to ensure that Title I schools that have many new, lower paid teachers get their fair share of Title I funding. Currently, districts don’t have to count teacher’s actual salaries when distributing local funds; instead they simply have to make sure that all teachers are on the same pay scale. This in essence, punishes high poverty schools, which usually employ a large number of novice teachers. The threat of the removal of this language in the bill prompted an emotional response from Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Col.), one of the authors of the comparability provision, who pounded the table and proclaimed that without it, Title I should be renamed the “increase the achievement gap title” so that we are being honest with ourselves. The Democrats were able to defeat the Alexander amendment, and the comparability language remains in the bill as it hopefully makes its way to the floor. 

Another interesting debate centered on the Obama administration’s use of waivers. Currently, 37 states and the District of Columbia are operating under NCLB waivers. These waivers grant states exemptions from certain provisions of NCLB in exchange for adopting certain reforms and conditions set forth by the administration and Department of Education. The main provision that states have sought exemption from is the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirement, which mandates that every student is proficient in reading and math by 2014 or face sanction and possibly closure. Under the current law, 40% of schools in Virginia were considered failing in 2010 and 91% of schools in D.C. failed to meet their targets.  

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) proposed an amendment that would have made it very clear that the Secretary of Education could not offer conditional waivers, which would have undermined the administration’s entire waiver program. The debate regarding this amendment turned into a competition between Sen. Roberts, and his colleague Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina to see who had the largest binder containing their state’s waiver application. Sen. Scott joked that his application had originally been used as a 50-pound weight, but now it is a 100-pound one. 

So where does reauthorization go from here? Given the fact that both Senators Harkin and Alexander have stated that they would like to see the bill reach the Senate floor, there is a good chance that will occur. This is important since the last time the Senate considered an ESEA reauthorization bill was NCLB in 2001. However, it is very unlikely that we will see some sort of legislation that is ready for the president’s signature. The House ESEA reauthorization bill put forth by House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R.-MN) has very little in common with the Senate bill, making it unlikely that these two pieces of legislation could be reconciled into something that could be sent to the president. So it seems as though Sen. Scott will continue his workout for a little bit longer.