Legislative Letters 7-2-18


DEW: The Department of Education and the Workforce

President Trump announced on June 21  intentions to merge the Departments of Education and Labor into a single Department, The Department of Education and the Workforce (DEW) as part of a larger federal reorganization. Proposed as a means of reducing costs and redundancy, as of yet, there are little specifics as to how to accomplish this except the creation of four primary subdivisions: the K-12 Agency,  the American Workforce and Higher Education Administration (AWHEA), the Enforcement Agency (worker and civil rights protections), and the Research, Evaluation, and Administration Agency. Of particular interest to graduate education is the AWHEA, which “would be charged with ensuring that American workers possess the skills necessary to succeed in the workforce” in order to “improv[e] synergy between higher education and workforce development programs.” Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation expressed concern at the implications of the move, stating, “Turning the Education Department into a career center is inappropriate,” as other non-economic benefits of education may be ignored. For the full plan of the merger, see here.

As these departments are regulated by Congress, a merger would require congressional approval, and at present, Congress member opinions vary.  Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), chair of the House Education and Workforce Committee supports it, while the ranking member on the committee, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va) does not. The House Oversight Committee has already begun hearings on the merger.

Education Civil Rights Chief

The Senate confirmed a new assistant secretary of education for civil rights, Kenneth Marcus. Marcus’ nomination was generally unsupported by Democrats and applauded by Republicans. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights issued a statement opposing his nomination, citing a history of “anti-civil rights” positions. These positions include disregard for unequal access to educational resources for Black students, opposition to equal opportunity initiatives, non-support of educational opportunities for immigrant children, refusal to commit to publicly identify colleges and universities under investigation for sexual assault, lack of concern for harassment due to sexual orientation or gender identity, and stated that he did not disagree with a single thing that President Trump has said or done regarding  discrimination, women’s rights, or civil rights.


The Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act: PROSPER

The Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965 has been rewritten eight times, the last version of which expired in 2013. It was extended until a new act could be passed, and one was approved by the House Committee on Education and Workforce in December of 2017. However, it has yet to make its way to the House floor and is unlikely to pass in the Senate. Named the PROSPER Act (H.R. 4805 [115]), it contains provisions that would eliminate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, the Federal Work Study program, and place annual loan caps for graduate and professional students. It would also eliminate Grad Plus, Perkins, and Subsidized Stafford loans as well as reduce the number of income-based repayment plans available to students. The Congressional Budget Office has predicted that PROSPER would result in a net loss in study aid.

PROSPER also contains measures that would affect campus safety. It would mandate all schools have a survivor counselor exempt from reporting crimes on campus, thereby in artificially inflated advertised crime statistics. It would also allow institutions to indefinitely delay or suspend investigations in sexual assault cases if requested by law enforcement. This would effectively force victims wishing to stay in school to make a choice: either seek legal recourse and possibly be forced to continue to attend school with their perpetrators or forego justice to ensure being safe on campus. Additionally, it would deny federal funding for institutions that use “free speech zones” or “speech codes,” which are designed to curb hate speech.

House Committee activity on PROSPER and Member statements can be viewed here.

Meanwhile, the Senate version of a HEA seems stalled, with Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn) claiming that Democrats are delaying until after the election, though Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wa) states that she’s still interested in passing the reauthorization as soon as possible.

Perkins Career and Technical Education Act

While the Senate has not made much progress on a reauthorization of HEA, they have moved on the reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education (CTE) Act (H.R. 2353 [115]) which was approved by the House last year. With bipartisan and Executive  support, this bill governs federal spending on career and technical education programs, allotting approximately $1 billion each year. It would allow the Education secretary to approve, without negotiation, state goals for their career and technical education programs, which would be built around a set of assessments (e.g. graduate rates, enrollment in post-secondary programs, etc.). States must track student performances on a variety of demographics, and states would have less time to meet their goals to receive federal funding.


Travel Ban

The Supreme Court ruled on June 26th that Trump’s travel ban was not unconstitutional on the grounds that the president has power over matters of national security. Included on the ban are seven countries, including North Korea and Venezuela as well as five majority-Muslim countries (Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen). Chief Justice John Roberts stated that “Trump’s anti-Muslim statements were irrelevant as long as the policy had a rational purpose apart from the rhetoric.” In Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent, she called this a “façade,” as the policy was first advertised as a “‘total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States’.”

The ban will have long-term consequences on research, education, and scientific and technological advancement. Since the implementation of the ban, graduate enrollment has declined by approximately 6%; researchers will be unable to travel to these countries to conduct, promote, and share research; those currently separated from their families will suffer emotionally and professionally.


In an effort to curb intellectual property theft, President Trump has ordered US embassies and consulates to limit postgraduate students from China to one-year visas if they are in high-tech fields, a policy that took effect on June 11th. However, analysts predict this will most likely have little effect on intellectual espionage, and instead result in allowing Chinese students to benefit from the US education system and then take their skills elsewhere. More recently, rumors circulate of additional restrictions on both student visas and on exchange programs as part of President Trump’s zero-tolerance policy on immigration.

Immigration Bill

Congress has been under pressure to pass sweeping immigration reform, and the latest effort – a bill introduced in the House – failed on June 27th by a considerable margin (121-301). It contained measures to provide a path to citizenship for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) as well as funding for President Trump’s border wall. Support from President Trump has been inconsistent: He encouraged the House to delay a vote until after the elections on June 22nd, a position he reversed five days later when the vote was scheduled, a switch he later denied. It may be that his inconsistent support is in part responsible for the bill’s failure.


The Budget Outlook

On June 26th, the Director of the Congressional Budget Oversight Committee, Keith Hall, released a statement along with the committee’s report on the US’s long-term budget. It predicts a two-fold increase in debt by 2048, driven primarily by Social Security, health care programs, and debt interest. In contrast, revenues are not expected to increase significantly until 2026, when the tax breaks of 2017 expire. By 2024, the deficit is expected to be the largest in history.

Education Funding

Congress has begun considering the spending bill for fiscal year (FY) 2019, beginning on October 1. In the Senate, the bipartisan education funding bill passed on June 28th (30-1) and included funding the Department of Education at $71.4 billion. The House version would fund the Department at slightly less ($71 billion) and is likely to be delayed being voted on  until after the July 4th recess.

The report language in the House version also contains support for year-round Pell grants, transparency of foreign funding in secondary institutions, and justifications for expulsions and suspensions in preschool and K-12 with demographic breakdowns. Both bills include increased funding for the Office for Civil Rights, against the wishes of both DeVos and Trump.

Boosts to education funding may come through a different bill (H.R. 5859 [115]) currently in the House Natural Resources subcommittee. Introduced by Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), it would redirect profits from federal mineral and geothermal back into states’ education funding.

The investment financial research group, Moody’s Investors Service, reports that funding at public universities continues to decline, with 60% reporting revenue below inflation. The lead author of the report attributed this to state funding constraints with tuition affordability concerns.

Student Loans

Student loan debt has become a key political issue as it has been addressed in spending bills, reauthorizations of the Higher Education Act, and potential mergers of the Department of Education and the Department of Labor. Regulating loan companies is of particular interest; the AARP has begun to push for regulations to curb abusive loan practices, as older borrowers default on their loans. In addition, the Department of Education is being sued by two advocacy groups (American Oversight and the National Student Legal Defense Network) to turn over documents related to the DE’s relationship with the student loan industry. On June 28th, California’s Attorney General announced that he would file a lawsuit against Navient for several consumer protection violations, the fourth state to do so. Navient is one of the largest student loan companies in the country and one of the four that has contracts with the Department of Education.


Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court ruled on June 27th that charging non-union members fees for union representation is a violation of the non-members First Amendment right to choose not to support union activity. William B. Gould, former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, told The Chronicle of Higher Education later that day that this blow for organized labor will likely increase complicate the relationship between university-related unions. The right of graduate students to unionize have been debated for nearly two decades under different presidential-appointed NLRBs. Gould stated that many universities are opting for systems independent of the NLRB, and unions are likewise avoiding the board. Once the appeals court has ruled on the Columbia University ruling, we will have a clearer idea of the state of graduate student unions.


Justice Anthony Kennedy Resigns

On June 27th, Justice Kennedy submitted his resignation, and President Trump has the opportunity to fill a second Supreme Court vacancy. However,  the Senate Judiciary Committee, followed by the full Senate, has authority to approve or deny any recommendation. The GOP majority in the Senate is slim (one vote), which means that the upcoming midterm elections may have significant influence on the who exactly will fill this seat.

Justice Kennedy was the swing vote in the last ruling supporting affirmative action ( UT Austin, 2016), and this may open an opportunity to overturn that decision – perhaps with the lawsuit against Harvard University’s admission policies.


Midterm elections are this November, and with it, all 435 Congressional Districts for the House and 35 of the 100 Senate seats will be open. Senate republicans currently have a one seat majority, 218 seats are needed for control of the House. For more information, see these interactive maps of the House and the Senate. Find out more who is running and about current  Congress members’ history, voting records, committee assignments, and legislation.


Sexual Harassment of Women in Higher Education: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (June 12, 2018) The report finds that sexual harassment is common in academia, with between 20 and 50 percent of students, staff, and faculty experiencing sexual harassment from faculty or staff, with organizational climate being the most significant factor in its emergence. It concludes that  sexual harassment should be considered as equally important to research misconduct on its impact on research and talent in academia and recommends comprehensive cultural changes to address it.

Distribution of Federal Support for Students Pursuing Higher Education in 2016: Congressional Budget Office (June 2018) The federal government invested approximately $91 billion for students pursue higher education in 2016. Most of those funds ($54 billion) were allocated to spending programs, particularly the Federal Pell Grant Program, with another $37 billion going to tax expenditures. Within the spending programs, most education benefits go to households in the lower two-fifths of the population, whereas tax expenditures were concentrated to those in the middle-income groups. The degree to which the cost of attendance is covered by federal assistance varies with income level: federal assistance covers approximately one-third for those in lowest-income group but one-tenth for the highest-income group.

Federal Aid for Postsecondary Students: Congressional Budget Office (June 2018) In fiscal year 2017, the federal government provided approximately $100 billion in student loans, $30 billion in grants, and $30 billion in tax expenditures. This report examines the degree to which this financial support is sufficient and recommends three avenues for change in the current system: changing the amount of financing available, changing programs with uncertain returns on investment, and changing subsidies for higher education.


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