Penn Hill Group’s Washington Wrap-Up: December 3

Here’s a quick look at the news from last week (November 26 – 30) in Washington.

The U.S. Department of Education released a list of 61 applications that have been selected as finalists for the Race to the Top-District competition, out of the 372 applications they received. The 61 finalists represent more than 200 school districts, and the finalists are eligible to receive a portion of the $400 million available for the competition. The Department expects to pick 15-25 winners, and winners will be announced before the end of the year.

The U.S. Department of Education released four-year high school graduation rates for the 2010-11 school year, the first year that all states used the common reporting method required under the Department’s ESEA Title I regulations. Graduation rates range from 59% in the District of Columbia to 88% in Iowa. Education Week reported that the data shows large achievement gaps for minority and economically disadvantaged students.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan sent a Dear Colleague letter to chief state school officers last Monday, saying that high school completion rates must be a part of their accountability systems under the ESEA state waivers, and he is not waiving the 2008 regulations that require states to calculate graduation rates using a common method, as discussed above. Secretary Duncan included a list of graduate-rate targets for all ESEA waiver states in the letter.

The Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid held their annual conference last week. A few updates from the conference include:
· In the second term, the Administration is considering focusing on graduation rates, and combating rising tuition costs through increasing disclosures like the College Scorecard and the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, and expanding Title IV aid.
· It is likely that additional prohibitions on schools recruiting on military bases will come from the Department of Defense.
· There may be a Negotiated Rulemaking announcement on gainful employment before the end of the year, following up on litigation in this area.
· The Department is likely announce another Negotiated Rulemaking in the coming weeks on the on Pell fraud that has been the topic of IG investigations.
· On the topic of student verification requirements, and potential impacts that may have on enrollment at online schools, ED said they will target just a small number of suspicious applications for additional verification.

Rep. George Miller (D-CA) spoke on a higher education panel at the Brookings Institution last week, on innovation in higher education. Rep. Miller spoke in favor of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as a means to engage learners of all types.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was elected to serve as Minority Leader in the House of Representatives, and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) was elected to serve as Democratic Whip.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) released the 2013 House Calendar on Friday.

Congressional leaders and the Administration continue to meet to discuss a deal to avoid the fiscal cliff.  The largest points of contention remain the amount of tax revenue that will be generated along with the amount of cuts that will have to be made to entitlement programs in order to achieve some measure of bipartisan support.  These conversations are not focused on individual program cuts or changes at this point.  For example the Pell Grant shortfall or corresponding cuts in student loan and related programs have not been discussed in these meetings.  How and when the fiscal cliff will be resolved remains to be seen.