Resolutions for 2007

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

Between the options of looking back at 2006 and looking forward to 2007, I am choosing the latter. I’m a half-full type of guy anyway. As we close this year, I am hopeful that some of us will get our act together and push education forward in 2007. Here are some thoughts.

No Child Left Behind. 2007 is the year that NCLB is due to be reauthorized by Congress. Given their track record on other reauthorizations, that’s a long shot for sure. But the newcoming leaders (e.g., Kennedy et al.) say it is a priority. If so, let’s hope they do enough with it to get it right. Although some people would hope the Democrats would trash it, that won’t happen. Remember, Kennedy was a big advocate back in 2001 when discussions were taking place. But perhaps Congress could resolve to make it better by taking off certain performance regulations (e.g., AYP) and focusing on providing the tools for states. Let the states have final authority in how they do thinks, but give them strong incentives to act in a certain way, with a focus on what is best for students and keeping political interference at a minimum. I am nothing but a dreamer, eh?

Higher Education (Pell and Loans). This could be a better year for higher education, from a Congressional point of view (I’ll leave Canada to Alex on this one), but only in a minor way. The federal budget is extremely limited now that the Democrats are basically punting on the FY2007 and focusing on the FY 2008. Smart move, politically speaking, and I agree with what they’ve done. However, it leaves the Education Department and other entities with basically a cut in funds, after inflation is entered into the equation. So, they won’t have much money to do anything. Still, they Democrats have said they will pump up the Pell Grant for the first time since the Clintonian Age. I also expect that the Higher Education Act, due to be reauthorized in, let’s see, 2004, will FINALLY be reauthorized in 2007. That’s because they have to by this point. In that legislative package, expect there to be considerable movement on student loans, in terms of loan limits finally getting adjusted after decades of flat-lining. Student Groups don’t want the loan limits up, because then students will borrow more. Man, what regressive thinking. Students, and their families, are now chalking up the highest level of credit card and private loan debt ever, and much is in part to their inability to borrow enough to cover their higher education expenses. Not providing necessary funding does not bring the cost of education down, so let’s not play that game. Let’s get real in 2007 and adjust loan limits accordingly so that students aren’t stuck with ulta-high loan rates.

ED. Well, ED finally got their legs this year with Margaret Spellings at the helm. Love her or hate her, she at least is sticking her head out there and doing something, a trait her predecessary didn’t have. I guess this wasn’t a stretch, since the former Secretary, Houston’s Rod Paige, was, at best, a puppet for the White House. Didn’t do anything remotely useful in his term in office. Bush went back to the Texas well again to recruit Spellings, but she has a work ethic and obviously struck a deal with Bush not to be just another “yes” person in his cabinet. She talks hard, and seems to understand most of the issues, some which are very complex. We’ll see how she steers ED in 2007 under new leadership.

Congress. It will be a good year for Congress, because they are coming from their worst year ever, so, by comparison, it must look good. To give you a benchmark, the 109th Congress, which just ended, was the least “worked” year in congressional history. In fact, the House of Representatives were in session for a meager 103 days, beating the previous low back in 1948. Just this week Steny Hoyer, the incoming majority leader of the Senate, said that they will begin meeting on January 4, while most incoming Congresses wait until the State of the Union speech in February. And if that isn’t enough, the Dems also said that they will increase the working time for members from three days to 4.5 days a week. The half day was thrown in because people didn’t like “5.”

They’ll get something done. Because if they don’t, voters will continue to send them a message in 2008.

The States. Well, year after year the states seem to be a disappointment in education. Education is the first item cut from the budget when the economy goes sour, and the last thing added when it runs well. The states largely shirked their collective responsibilities to education, and then wonder why the feds have walked in with NCLB and demanded action. In 2007, the states need to improve K-12 education, increase teacher pay to get better teachers in the work force, limit tuition and fee charges in a reasonable fashion to higher education, and provide more need-based aid to students at the postsecondary level. And that’s for starters…

Tuition. Will this be the year that tuition fees come in to check? No, stop dreaming. College “costs” and “prices” won’t change their trends because absolutely nothing has happened to make that change happen. Policymakers in the US and in Canada have their heads in the sand on this one. It’s the analogy of the frog in hot water. Because the increases, while large, are happening somewhat slowly, it hasn’t hit enough of a peak to get enough serious attention. At the congressional level, all it does is spark a debate about whether student aid causes higher tuition fees, rather than dealing with the issue. It seems that the only answer people are looking for is to force more students into two-year colleges, because they’re “cheaper.” This is true, but in time, this is a problem, too. The two-year institutiosn are also getting more expensive, and, in time, many students will also have a hard time paying for them because they increase 2-3 times CPI. And, by taking this stance, we truly bifurcate educational opportunity (which we already have, but I’m the half full guy). I’d like to say that 2007 will be the year that we get real on college costs, but it won’t be. We’re just not there.

School Reform. Perhaps 2007 will be the year that school reform actually gets on track. Hhhmm. Nope. Not gonna happen. Back in March, Bill Gates said that high schools are outdated and no longer serve society well. He is correct, but we are ill-situated to make a change. I think NCLB is pushing us there, but in a such a slow manner that change in society will far outpace change in education. We need a brand new model for public education that allows for individuality. Do we really need grades in high school? Or should we push toward a model more like higher education, that allows students to push at their own pace on their own interests? There are so many compulsory courses in high school at this time that students have very little opportunity to pursue “interests” and sample academia. If you’re on a college track, you have 1 or 2 options during your four years of high school. That’s about it, and that’s not right. There needs to be more flexibility for students, and more engagement to the 12th grade. A few weeks ago I wrote a piece focuing on the National Center for Education and the Economy’s new report on high school reform. If we do that, we’re golden.

The Educational Policy Institute. 2007 will be a big year for EPI. We’ve got some big projects on our plate and will be expanding. We also have in mind some new EPI publications that we’ll share with you soon. In the meantime, we’d like to hear from you about what you’d like to see and read from us. Email me at wswail@educationalpolicy.org.

I’m at Disney World right now trying to relax. Perhaps I should put that on my resolution list. Let’s wish ourselves the best in 2007. Have a fun and uneventful New Year’s Eve, and we look forward to talking with you next year.

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