Congress Punts on Appropriations
For the past several years Congress has failed to complete the appropriations process on time. The appropriations process involves setting spending for the federal fiscal year. With the federal fiscal year beginning on October 1, Congress must establish spending for all federal programs and activities by September 30 or risk a government shutdown. To avoid a shutdown, Congress passed a short-term bill known as a Continuing Resolution (CR) which expired on December 9, but now they have delayed final spending decisions for Fiscal Year 2017 (FY 2017) until the end of April.
With the Republican party in control of the White House and both chambers of the newly elected Congress, the current Congress decided to allow the new Administration to set its own spending. In order to do so, Congress passed a second CR which extends until April 28.
The new CR freezes most government funding at FY 2016 levels, despite the fact that we are three months into FY 2017. In addition, the CR contains an across-the-board cut of 0.19% to keep spending under the tight budget caps imposed in the 2011 Budget Control Act. The legislation also included spending outside the caps for response to recent disasters and for the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), which funds defense priorities and some non-defense State Department needs.
Having FY 2017 funding decisions extend halfway into the fiscal year causes a number of problems, including complicating how States and local governments budget for the current fiscal year. School districts generally receive federal funding for education programs, including the IDEA and Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, in July. However, school district budgets are usually set in early spring, so not knowing the federal funding amount they will receive until early summer may cause serious fiscal problems.
Traditionally the president issues a budget proposal for the next fiscal year in early February. To further complicate matters, rumors have been circulating that the President-Elect may not release a budget proposal for FY 2018 at the usual time or at all. This doesn't seem that far-fetched, since the Administration will not have the benefit of settled FY 2017 numbers in order to determine what the next year's funding would be. More likely Congress will once again be faced with starting work on FY 2018 spending while still trying to finalize the current year.
LDA monitors appropriations very closely and will keep you posted on spending levels for our federal program priorities as any information becomes available.
Supreme Court Hears Special Education Cases
Senators Casey (D-PA), Hatch (R-UT), and Cassidy (R-LA) have just introduced the Respond, Innovate, Support and Empower Students with Disabilities Act (RISE Act), focused on addressing challenges students face as they prepare for and enroll in postsecondary education. The bill would amend the Higher Education Act (HEA), which Congress is set to consider early in the next session.
Specifically, the RISE Act would clarify what documentation an institution of higher education must accept when considering whether an enrolled student has a disability. LDA has long been concerned about the impediments to accommodations in higher education placed on students who received services under the IDEA or Section 504 in their K-12 education. Rather than accept documentation of previous services, colleges generally require recent testing within as little as six months to establish the need for accommodations. In some instances this has meant a full re-evaluation or some other verification of the student's disability.
The bill sponsors have introduced the RISE Act to clarify that a past IEP, 504 plan, or documentation from a military service, in addition to other common types of documentation, will suffice to establish the student's disability at a college. Decisions about accommodations would continue to be made individually by the institution and the student.
Determining what disability services are offered at higher education institutions is another challenge often faced by students with disabilities in preparing for postsecondary education. The RISE Act would require schools to have transparent policies regarding the services provided and to widely disseminate this information. In addition, the bill authorizes $10 million for the National Center for Information and Technical Support for Postsecondary Students with Disabilities, a current program that provides young adults with disabilities and their families information about disability services and how to access resources and supports. The National Center is charged, as well, with supporting training and support for college faculty to meet the needs of students with disabilities, a concern also addressed in the bill.
LDA has joined with a number of national disability and higher education organizations to support this important legislation. We are particularly proud that Senator Casey represents LDA, headquartered in his home State of Pennsylvania, and are pleased to work with him to move this bill forward.
The President-Elect has selected Betsy DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist and activist, as his nominee for Secretary of Education. Even before hearings on her nomination begin, Ms. DeVos has created a stir in the education advocacy community with her strong support for school choice and limited experience with the public education system.
Ms. DeVos was instrumental in moving forward a 2000 ballot initiative that would have amended the Michigan state Constitution to create a voucher program for students to attend non-public schools. That effort met with failure. However, she continues to be a strong proponent of school choice, a phrase that usually signals support for public funding of private education. Ms. DeVos also has supported increasing charter schools, many of which in Michigan are operated by for-profit companies, again raising concerns for education advocates.
During the campaign, the President-Elect proposed a $20 billion program for school choice. He did not indicate from where funds for such a program might come. If the funds were to come from current education programs, $20 billion is about two-thirds of current expenditures on the IDEA and Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Most likely any move to eliminate these programs and replace them with a voucher initiative would be met with considerable opposition in Congress since IDEA and ESEA provide important funding to States and local school districts.
Some media have reported nominee DeVos opposes the Common Core State standards for reading and mathematics. However, there are conflicting reports about her support for raising standards and expectations for students. For example, she is a board member of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a group founded by Florida Governor Jeb Bush to promote school choice and the Common Core.
In case you're wondering about the nominations process, here's a short explanation: The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee will hold hearings in early January to gather information from the nominee. The Committee also may submit additional written questions to which the nominee must respond. These hearings provide a close examination of the nominee, and the Committee may have supporters and opponents testify. Once the hearings have ended, the Committee sends the nomination to the full Senate with a favorable or unfavorable report or without a recommendation. The nomination is decided on a simple majority vote of the Senate.
In addition to Education, LDA will monitor the confirmation proceedings for other Cabinet secretaries whose department jurisdictions impact the lives of individuals with learning disabilities, including the Departments of Health and Human Services and Justice.
New Members of Congress Show Philosophical Divide
When the 115th Congress is seated in January, there will be seven new senators – five Democrats and two Republicans. Twenty-six new House Republicans will be joined by 23 new Democratic representatives. One thing is clear: there is a growing philosophical divide on party lines, with greater tension between a strong federal government and oversight and the push to return some functions to States and localities.
With very few exceptions, the new Republican members have a consistent message about American education. They strongly support reducing federal involvement and returning education to the control of local educators and parents. In addition, most have expressed deep concerns about the Common Core State standards, which they view as a federal mandate.
On the other side of the aisle, the Democrats are a diverse group, several of whom were immigrants to the United States. They express the need for a strong education from early childhood through higher education, including support for increased federal investment in education.
Some issues of common interest for both parties appear to be attention to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) instruction, as well as career and technical education. Generally, they also agree that higher education should be more affordable.
Following are some new members who have expressed concerns about LDA issues or have a personal interest:
- Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA): Supports wraparound services and disability services.
- Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL): Lost both legs and partial use of one arm as army helicopter pilot.
- Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD): As a House member, repeatedly introduced legislation for full funding of IDEA.
- Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH): Parent of a son with significant disabilities, and husband, daughter, and parents are educators.
- Senator John Kennedy (R-LA): Strong interest in teacher quality and fair evaluation.
- Jimmy Panetta (D-CA): Supports expansion of school mental health services focused on early intervention and reducing stigma.
- Nanette Barragán (D-CA): Worked as an advocate for foster children with special education needs and interested in the school to prison pipeline due to disparities in school discipline.
- Lou Correa (D-CA): As State assemblyman, worked for children's health and safety and mental health care.
- Brian Mast (R-FL): Lost both legs as Army bomb disposal expert.
- John Faso (R-NY): Wife is a school nurse and believes in the importance of a good education for later success.
There are a number of other members who have education as a key issue area. LDA will have a listing of all new members on its website as a reference for our members. Now is the time to begin building relationships with your Senators and Representatives with the goal of becoming their "experts" on learning disabilities and the impact on individuals' lives throughout the life span.