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Pell Grant Increase Survives in CR; Teacher Standards Ruffle Some Groups

From Congressional Quarterly
By Lauren Smith

The White House persuaded lawmakers to include a large increase for Pell grants in a measure to keep the government running through March — but another provision on teacher qualifications has angered some education advocates.

The continuing resolution unveiled in the Senate on Dec. 19 would maintain a $5.7 billion increase in Pell grants, which provide tuition assistance for low-income college students. The Obama administration had sought to prevent a cut to the $5,550 maximum tuition grant.

The measure also includes a provision that would allow teachers still in training to be considered “highly qualified.” Under the federal No Child Left Behind education law, all students are supposed to have highly qualified teachers, and school officials must notify parents when their children's teachers are not classified as such.

That provision, which was also in the draft Senate omnibus spending package, was requested by groups such as Teach for America, which places college graduates as teachers in low-performing schools. It is strongly opposed by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education and some student advocacy and civil rights groups; they say that teachers still in training programs are disproportionately concentrated in schools serving low-income students.

“This comes by design at the eleventh hour,” said John T. Affeldt, managing attorney for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group. “I think many congressmen may think this is merely a bill that supports Teach for America and do not realize the overall complexities and controversies of the issues involved here.

“These parents are saying, ‘We don't want these teachers disproportionately in our schools.' They want the same access to fully prepared teachers that the affluent communities have. And if these [teachers] . . . are really so great, equally distribute them.”

Affeldt said his group had not had any success persuading lawmakers to challenge the provision given the crush of issues competing for their attention in the session's final days.

Rejected Increases

While the Pell grant funding would represent a win for the administration if the continuing resolution passes, lawmakers did not include funding increases to Title I, which supports school districts with high percentages of students from low-income families, or to IDEA, which helps pay for services for children with disabilities.

Increases had been included in the draft omnibus, which failed to win GOP support.

The continuing resolution also does not contain any funding for the administration's hallmark competitive grant program, Race to the Top, or for a new competitive grant for early-childhood education initiatives.

“Closing the Pell shortfall is an incredible victory for students in need, and I remain hopeful that these provisions will pass in the coming days,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee. “But I must ask: what kind of priorities do Congressional Republicans exhibit when they argue for billions in tax breaks for the extremely wealthy, yet fight against funding for programs that provide working families access to care and early learning programs?”

If enacted, the continuing resolution would expire in March, when Republicans will control the House. It is unlikely they would agree to increase funding for education programs like Title I or IDEA.

“The CR makes a critical investment in Pell funding that we hope to see coupled with substantial investments in reform when Congress returns to these matters in March,” said a spokesman for the Education Department.

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