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A well-educated workforce is one of the key drivers of strong economic growth.  In the face of global and technological advances that have made the modern economy more complex and dynamic, it is imperative that Americans have access to a high-quality education.  Since 1980, the year that the Department of Education opened its doors, there has been an 85 percent increase in federal spending on Elementary and Secondary education, when adjusting for inflation.  However, despite record taxpayer-funded spending in public education, academic achievement has not seen a commensurate improvement, and the state of the American education system is sobering.  Currently, only 38 percent of high school seniors read at grade level and a mere 26 percent are proficient in math.  Stagnant student achievement levels and exploding deficits have demonstrated that massive amounts of taxpayer funding and top-down bureaucratic interventions are not the way to provide America’s students with a high-quality education.  It is imperative then that we allocate our financial resources effectively and efficiently to improve education in this country and ensure the continued success of future generations of Americans.

Education in the House-passed Budget

Representative Tom Price, chairman of the House Budget Committee in the 114th  Congress, introduced the House Republicans’ Fiscal Year 2016 Budget, “A Balanced Budget for a Stronger America,” on March 20, 2015.

This budget places a strong emphasis on returning the power to make education-related decisions to state and local governments, and students and their families, who know far more about what is best for their children and their education than federal bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.  It eliminates unsuccessful and duplicative K-12 programs in order to cut costs, increase efficiency, and ensure effectiveness – all while saving taxpayer money.  By returning control to local entities, we can promote educational choices that provide for greater flexibility and innovation.

This resolution also confronts the issue of student loan debt and envisions a framework that uses federal dollars more resourcefully so that our system is more accountable and beneficial to students, institutions of higher education, and taxpayers.  As it stands, our nation’s current higher education system enables skyrocketing tuition and presents too many students with the difficult choice of taking on crippling debt or leaving school entirely, neither of which are a preferable or acceptable choice.

Additionally, it makes changes to the Pell Grant program to put it on a sustainable path.  Congressional Democrats and the president have pushed Pell Grant spending to unsustainable rates.  The Congressional Budget Office reports the program will face fiscal shortfalls starting in Fiscal Year 2017.  We need to reform the program now, so it can keep its promises to students who rely on the program.

In an effort to keep that promise, this budget does two things.  First, it targets Pell Grants to students who need the most assistance.  Second, it adopts a sustainable Pell Grant maximum-award level.  The Department of Education attributes 25 percent of recent program growth to the $619 increase in the maximum award included under the Obama administration’s stimulus bill that took effect during the 2009-2010 academic year.  This budget freezes the maximum award for the 2015-2016 award year throughout the budget window.  The Pell Grant program is critically important to our nation’s neediest students, and to ensure its continuation, reforms to the program must be made.

This budget came before the House on March 26, 2015, and was passed with my support by a vote of 228 to 199.  I was encouraged that my colleagues chose to support a budget that would offer the American people a brighter future. 

Higher Education and Student Loan Rates

In order to improve our system of higher education, we need a framework that accounts for student loans in a way that reflects their true costs, that uses federal dollars more resourcefully, and invests in a sustainable future for all stakeholders, including students, taxpayers, and the institutions themselves.  Today, Americans hold over $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, a figure that surpasses the total amount of credit card debt held in the United States.

Decades of policies supported by both political parties have resulted in students racking up dangerous levels of student loan debt.  The goal of federal financial student aid is to make college more affordable; however, the federal government's policies are a contributing factor to the core structural challenge in higher-education financing.  While students continue to chase skyrocketing tuition with ever higher levels of borrowing, economists such as Richard Vedder, have testified before Congress that the structure of the federal government's aid programs is a key driver of higher tuition costs.  In other words, some economists argue that the more funding Congress provides for student loans and grants, the more colleges and universities raise tuition.  Congress must make certain student financial assistance programs are sustainable, while also ensuring policies exist to continue to help those most in need of assistance.

Keeping in mind the challenges currently facing American students, Representative John Kline introduced H.R. 1911, the Smarter Solutions for Students Act, on May 9, 2013, during the 113th Congress.  This legislation would amend Title IV of the Higher Education At of 1965 to set the annual interest rate on Direct Stafford loans and Direct Unsubsidized Stafford loans at the rate on high-yield 10-year Treasury notes plus 2.05 percent, while capping that rate at 8.25 percent.  It would also set the annual interest rate on Direct PLUS loans at the rate on high-yield 10-year Treasury notes plus 4.6 percent, while capping that rate at 10.5 percent.  In doing so, student loan interest rates would be tied to market-based interest rates and American students would finally have a long-term solution to Congress' ongoing interest rate brinkmanship.  H.R. 1911 was passed in the House by a vote of 221 to 198 – with my support – on May 23, 2013. Unfortunately, the Senate did not take up H.R. 1911 for a vote before the July 1, 2013 deadline.  As a result, the student loan interest rate jumped from 3.4 to 6.8 percent on July 1, 2013.

Fortunately, on July 24, 2013, the Senate held a vote on H.R. 1911, which passed by a vote of 81 to 18.  Included in this version of the bill was a provision to retroactively lower the rates for those impacted by the interest rate hike.  On July 31, 2013, the House passed the updated version of H.R. 1911—with my support—by a vote of 392 to 31.  Then on August 1, 2013, President Obama signed H.R. 1911 into law.  I am glad Congress was able to reach a compromise on this important issue and arrive at a long-term solution to help out our nation's students.  However, the fact remains that the total amount of outstanding student loan debt is staggering and I will continue to seek sensible solutions that make college a more affordable and worthwhile investment for students, that strengthen student loan programs to ensure that they are available for future generations, and that expand educational opportunity.

Elementary and Secondary Education Act Reauthorization

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), first enacted in 1965, is the primary source of federal funding for K-12 education programs.  That said, only about 12 percent of elementary and secondary education funding comes from the federal government.  The primary source of funding for elementary and secondary education comes from state and local governments.  The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 reauthorized virtually all ESEA programs through Fiscal Year (FY) 2008.  Though ESEA has not be reauthorized, the Obama Administration and the Department of Education have continued to offer benefits to states while waiving some of the requirements contained within NCLB, such as academic accountability standards and teacher qualifications.  In place of those NCLB standards, states must instead agree to meet a set of principles established by the Department of Education.  As a result, states are beholden to a set of federal requirements that were crafted without congressional approval, or without waivers granted to other states.

On February 3, 2015, Representative John Kline, who serves as Chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, introduced H.R. 5, the Student Success Act.  This legislation would replace the current national accountability scheme, which is based on high stakes tests, with state-led accountability systems.  In doing so, H.R. 5 would return responsibility for measuring student and school performance to states and school districts.  It would also ensure parents have the information they need to hold local schools accountable, consolidate more than 65 ineffective and duplicative programs into a Local Academic Flexible Grant, protect state and local autonomy by preventing the Secretary of Education from coercing states into adopting Common Core or any other common assessments, strengthen existing efforts to improve student performance among targeted student populations, and empower parents with more school choice options by continuing support for magnet schools and expanding charter school opportunities.  On July 8, 2015, the House passed H.R. 5 by a vote of 218 to 213 with my support.  On July 16, 2015, on a bipartisan basis, the Senate passed S. 1177, the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, an original piece of legislation which would also reauthorize ESEA, by a vote of 81 to 17. 

To reconcile the differences between the House and Senate bills, a conference committee was formed, and on November 30, 2015, this committee reported a reconciled version of S. 1177 called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  S. 1177 reauthorizes ESEA for Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 through FY 2020.  It dramatically reduces the role of the federal government in K-12 education by transferring power back to local governments and parents, thus ending an era of federally-mandated high-stakes testing.  Furthermore, this bill requires that 49 duplicative federal programs be converted into block grants, making state and local leaders responsible for school improvement by allowing them to decide how to apply federal resources to local needs and priorities and by holding them accountable for results.  By coupling greater flexibility with more direct accountability, S. 1177 avoids the unintended consequences of NCLB and returns power to where it belongs – with local schools and parents, and not with out-of-touch bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, it prevents the Secretary of Education from coercing states into adopting Common Core.  Finally, it offers more choice to students and their parents and eliminates the federally-mandated, one-size-fits-all accountability system. 

On December 2, 2015, in bipartisan fashion, the House passed S. 1177 by a vote of 359 to 64.  On December 9, 2015, also in bipartisan fashion, the Senate passed S. 1177 by a vote of 85 to 12, and on December 10, 2015, the president signed S. 1177 into law. 

Expanding Opportunity in America

While I was chairman of the House Budget Committee, I introduced a discussion draft entitled, “Expanding Opportunity in America” in August of 2014.  This draft is a set of ideas that are meant to start a conversation regarding which federal programs work to encourage economic opportunity, and which programs fail to accomplish their intended purposes.  A key tenet of this proposal was focused on improving access to high quality education.

The federal government can expand opportunity by expanding access to education.  But far too often, it restricts that access through tuition inflation.  In regards to early education, this draft would incorporate the Child Care and Development Fund into an Opportunity Grant, convert Head Start into a block grant, and test competing models of early education.  For elementary and secondary education, it would recommend the portability of federal dollars, consolidate fragmented programs into a flexible block grant, and empower states to determine which schools need assistance and what kind of assistance they need.  In relation to higher education, this proposal would call for the simplification of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, modernize and reform the Pell Grant program, cap federal loans to graduate students and parents, expand funding for federal Work-Study programs, build stronger partnerships with post-secondary institutions, and reform the accreditation process.    

Conclusion

As the 114th Congress continues to consider legislation that affects education, rest assured that I remain committed to ensuring that we have an accountable educational system that makes intelligent use of taxpayer dollars as we aim to serve the individual needs of our students.  Both Republicans and Democrats can and should share the bipartisan goal of ensuring that educational opportunities adequately prepare future generations of America to support not only themselves, but also to contribute to the continued academic and economic success of our nation.

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