From pre-kindergarten to No Child Left Behind, from broadband-wired schools to college loans, students in every age group are suddenly finding the spotlight on Capitol Hill.
After months of relative neglect, education issues are getting the attention of lawmakers from both parties — as well as President Barack Obama — just as the school year is ending and, for many college students, the cost of education is about to go up.
Interest rates on new subsidized Stafford loans are set to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent if Congress doesn’t act by July 1, but talks between Democrats and Republicans have largely broken down.
“Nobody’s even sitting at the table. That’s a problem,” said Andrew Kelly, an education scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
The Republican-led House already has taken action on loans — and drawn a veto threat from Obama. The Senate is set to take up student loans Thursday with competing Republican and Democratic versions of legislation. It’s not certain either can clear the 60-vote threshold in the Senate.
Two days earlier, Democratic lawmakers introduced a sweeping rewrite of the education law known as No Child Left Behind. Senate Republicans are expected to roll out a No Child Left Behind alternative this week, perhaps as early as Thursday.
House Republicans, too, are planning their own version of No Child Left Behind in coming weeks.
Meanwhile, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been promoting Obama’s early childhood program, although it seems headed nowhere. Obama has proposed working with states to set up programs for all 4-year-olds, and eventually all 3-year-olds, to prepare them for kindergarten.
And Obama is heading to North Carolina on Thursday to talk about putting high-speed Internet in schools.
In short: Scattershot ideas on education are tugging at Americans’ attention and dividing Congress’ priorities.
“You can’t tell the bills without a program,” said Terry Hartle, a top official with the higher-education lobbying group the American Council on Education.
Those are just the proposals getting serious or immediate consideration. Others — Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren‘s proposal to offer students loans at the same rates available to Wall Street, for example, and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio‘s proposal to consolidate educational tax breaks — are still sidelined despite fevered popularity among some constituencies in their parties.
Come July, college students will be hit with an extra $1,000 in student loan payments each year.
“If Congress doesn’t act, student loans are going to be more expensive for students and parents struggling to pay for college,” said Pauline Abernathy, a vice president at the Institute for College Access and Success.
Partisans are trying to find political advantage in their own positions and attempting to embarrass rivals. The committee devoted to electing Republicans to the Senate criticized potential Democratic candidates for joining other members of their party in voting against the GOP student loan bill in the House. Obama countered with a campaign-style event at White House event last week to criticize Republicans.
“Under normal circumstances, finding a way to avoid this should not be beyond the capability of Congress and the executive branch,” said Hartle. “But in the current environment, when every minor skirmish turns into the Battle of Gettysburg, it becomes very hard to take care of things that would have been taken care of before.”
Even so, other education advocates still see the potential for a deal similar to last summer’s eleventh-hour agreement — it came during the height of the 2012 presidential campaign — that kept interest rates low for one more year.
“There’s no question there’s nothing like a deadline to force Congress’ attention,” said Abernathy, a former senior official in the White House and Education Department. “We have a July 1 deadline on student loans. The deadlines on the other issues have long since passed, such as No Child Left Behind. It’s no question that it gets tougher to focus attention without that deadline.”
Congress let the 2007 deadline for No Child Left Behind pass without action. Student loans, however, are a more immediate priority for families than standardized tests.
“It’s a bread-and-butter, middle-class issue, paying for college,” Kelly said. “Neither party wants to come across as the draconian one, or the one standing in the way of sustainable system.”
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