Another Higher Ed Bill Stalled in Congress

April 20, 2018

With bipartisan talks over a Senate bill to renew the Higher Education Act seemingly stalled and a polarizing House bill having gone nowhere after a party-line committee vote, Congress seems increasingly unlikely to reauthorize the key higher education law in 2018.

Legislation to extend the federal government's primary law on career and technical education, however — desperately desired by many employers, educators and lawmakers — would appear to give lawmakers a chance for bipartisan accomplishment in postsecondary education. But even that "no-brainer" bill, as one member of Congress called it, is proving too divisive for the current Congress.

The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act was approved on a voice vote by House lawmakers last year. And 59 senators from both parties last fall urged key committee leaders to take up the legislation

But negotiations have gone nowhere in months, thanks to serious philosophical differences between Republican and Democratic senators charged with negotiating a new career education bill.

Representative Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican and chairwoman of the House education committee, last week called for the Senate to act on the bill, while making clear her frustration with the lack of movement so far.

“The House passed the bill unanimously last year,” she said last week. “I cannot emphasize how important it is for the Senate to vote on this bill and send it to President Trump for his signature.”

Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat, called the legislation “the biggest no-brainer on Capitol Hill” at an event focused on work-force training that he and Foxx attended last week.

The broad support in the House for passing an update to the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which directs federal support to career education programs, might be viewed as a positive portent for the bill moving forward. But the Senate appears to be as divided on a new bill as ever.

That’s despite wide support from members of Congress and clamoring from employers for new options to partner with schools and colleges on training potential workers.

“The stars seem aligned for bipartisan action. It’s unfortunate we’re not seeing it happen,” said Brent Parton, deputy director of the Center on Education & Skills at New America’s education policy program.

A spokesman for Senator Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate education committee, said reauthorizing Perkins is a priority for his office. Alexander charged Senator Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, and Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, with developing a proposal for the Senate to consider.

“Under Senator Enzi’s leadership, there are ongoing discussions among committee members to determine a bipartisan path forward,” an Alexander spokesman said.

A spokesman for Enzi said the senator is continuing to work with colleagues to reauthorize the bill but doesn’t have updates to add for the time being.

“Senator Enzi doesn’t tend to negotiate through the media,” the spokesman said. “He likes to work directly with members and try to come to an agreement, and discussing disagreements in public doesn’t really lend [itself] to that.”

A Casey spokeswoman said staff members are drafting a proposal that builds on the House bill as well as negotiations from previous years. But outstanding disagreements persist, specifically involving vouchers and provisions that would restrict the authority of the secretary of education to administer the program — both Republican ideas. Neither of those ideas have been included in previous bipartisan agreements on the program, the spokeswoman said.

Those restrictions would curtail the secretary of education’s ability to promulgate rules or define terms pertaining to the law, basically stripping the secretary of their normal powers to administer a law. The voucher proposal would have states award money via competitive grants or have funding follow individual students, rather than being awarded based on existing grant formulas. (The House bill would shift more authority to the states for spending Perkins funds and require that local employers be at the table when they are distributed.)

One Democratic aide said that Perkins has previously been a bipartisan bill, but that a proposal offered by Alexander and Enzi to Democrats in November was clearly “not serious.” That initial plan included numerous restrictions on the secretary's authority and the voucher idea — both nonstarters for Senate Democrats.

“They’re just starting at such an extreme place,” the aide said.

Although Enzi and Casey were tasked with developing a Senate proposal, they’ve essentially been working on separate tracks for months to develop their own outlines for a bill.

Kermit Kaleba, federal policy director at the National Skills Coalition, said even with strong advocacy from business and education leaders, it’s not clear if key senators feel a serious drive to pass a bill this year.

“I don’t think there’s this perception that Perkins is broken right now,” he said. “There’s not this urgency to get something fixed. And I think there is a perception that the House bill, while it does some really good things, is not a major transformation.”

The Perkins law was last reauthorized in 2006, though, and experts who follow work-force training issues say it’s past time for Congress to update it. A lot has changed in the intervening 12 years, both in the economy and in current law, said Angela Hanks, director of work-force development policy at the Center for American Progress.

There is a greater recognition today that work-based learning is important both for young people entering the work force and for adults looking to obtain additional skills, she said. And options like apprenticeships, which are frequently talked up by the Trump administration, weren’t at the forefront of the national agenda when the law was last updated.

“There really needs to be some support for strategies like career pathways, like industry partnerships, like generally better connections with industry that really aren’t reflected in the law as it stands,” she said.

Congress also passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act in 2013, and President Obama signed the bill into law the following year. An update to Perkins would allow Congress to make definitions of postsecondary credentials and partnerships between industry and the public sector consistent in the law, Hanks said.

Career education advocates have argued an update to Perkins should make the law consistent with changes in WIOA that embraced a wide range of student credentials and emphasized larger partnerships between industry and government. (While Perkins targets public school students and those enrolled in technical and community colleges, WIOA provides job training for dislocated workers and other types of employment services.)

Passing a Perkins update would show Congress is serious about addressing training for workers at a time when the issue has never been more popular among policy makers or the private sector. And while the legislation spends a relatively modest $1.2 billion, trouble negotiating an update may not bode well for a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, an even more expansive and ambitious bill.

“Perkins is something that’s pretty popular,” Hanks said. “It should be relatively low-hanging fruit, so it’s strange that it’s being held up.”