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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.  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 37 percent of high school seniors read at or above grade level proficiency and a mere 25 percent and 22 percent of seniors are proficient in math and science respectively.  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.

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 that invests in a sustainable future for all stakeholders, including students, taxpayers, and the institutions themselves.  Today, Americans hold over $1.3 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, a figure that surpasses the total amount of credit card debt held in the United States.  In just the past five school years, students and their families have seen tuition and fees climb 13 percent at public four-year colleges and universities and 14 percent at public two-year institutions. 

Decades of policies supported by both political parties have resulted in students racking up dangerous and levels of student loan debt.  The goal of federal financial student aid is to make college more affordable; however, despite the best of intentions, the federal policies are a contributing factor to the unsustainable growth in higher education costs and are at the core of the structural challenge in higher-education financing.  While students and taxpayers 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 that student financial assistance programs are sustainable, while also ensuring policies exist to continue to help those most in need of assistance.

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.

Based on the most recent data available, on average, the federal government only contributes 12 cents for every dollar that is spent on the education of students enrolled in K-12 programs.  The rest of the funding comes from state and local governments, as well as through private contributions.  The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 reauthorized virtually all ESEA programs through Fiscal Year 2008.  

Though ESEA authorization had lapsed, the Obama Administration and the Department of Education continued to offer these benefits to states while waiving some of the requirements contained within the NCLB, such as academic accountability standards and teacher qualifications.  In place of those NCLB standards, states had to agree to meet a set of principles established by the Department of Education.  As a result, states were beholden to a set of federal requirements, despite the fact that the federal government only makes a relatively marginal financial investment into the education of students.  This arrangement put a distant federal bureaucracy in charge of decisions that are better made by parents and local educators who can adapt to the unique needs of communities and students.  Furthermore, the standards that schools were held to were crafted without congressional approval.  The need for more accountability and greater flexibility in education policy has become abundantly clear.

On February 3, 2015, Representative John Kline, the Chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, introduced H.R 5, the Student Success Act.  This legislation would reauthorize ESEA, and among several other provisions would replace the current national accountability scheme, which is based on high-stakes tests, with state-led accountability systems.  In doing so, it would return responsibility for measuring student and school performance to states and school districts by ensuring parents have the information they need to hold local schools accountable.  To reduce bureaucracy and increase flexibility, this bill would consolidate more than 65 ineffective and duplicative programs into a Local Academic Flexible Grant. 

This bill would also protect state and local autonomy by preventing the Secretary of Education from coercing states into adopting Common Core or any other common assessments, and it would strengthen existing efforts to improve student performance among targeted student populations.  Finally, it would 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 a similar bill, S. 1177, the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, 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 and fruitless 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 looks to avoid the unintended consequences of NCLB and return power to where it belongs - with local schools and parents, not out-of- touch bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.  Specifically, it would prevent 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-mandates 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.  The passage of ESSA represents the first reauthorization of ESEA in more than a decade.  Although this bill is not perfect, it is an extraordinary bipartisan achievement that will expand educational opportunity for students and increase accountability to taxpayers.  It rolls back federal overreach and returns power to the most invested stake holders – local schools and the parents of the students who send them there.  Most importantly, this is a huge win for our students, who are now protected from high-stakes testing and will all have a greater chance at receiving a quality education that fits their unique needs.

H.R. 1, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act

Last year, Congress passed H.R. 1, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which delivers historic tax relief and a comprehensive reform of the federal tax code for the first time since 1986.  Among the many victories in this law are several significant provisions that will help families with children plan and pay for education, including by providing parents with a greater ability to make choices about their children’s education through enhancements to tax-free 529 college savings accounts that will be allowed to help pay expenses associated elementary and secondary schools as well.  This bill also supports graduate students by continuing to exempt the value of reduced tuition from taxes.  To read more about this legislation, I would encourage you visit: www.fairandsimple.gop

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